Too much enigma almost sinks The Vessel

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      Starring Martin Sheen. Rating unavailable

      Set in a seaside village where the inhabitants’ faces are as ravaged as the peeling-plaster houses, The Vessel is a gorgeously lensed parable. It’s just that its messages and symbolism are so heavy-handed, so laden with biblical meaning, they’re never left to work their own miracles.

      Cuban-American director Julio Quintana draws stylistically from mentor Terrence Malick (who executive-produces here), telling his story through imagery and swelling music more than through his sparse script.

      The film’s unnamed Puerto Rican village has sat frozen in aching grief since a tsunami (simply referred to as “the Wave”) took 46 of its children when it crashed into a schoolhouse. Father Douglas (Martin Sheen, bringing needed acting gravitas to the film) labours fruitlessly to bring spiritual hope to a community that refuses to go to church, stop wearing black, and have more children. The big question posed by the film is: can we ever find God again in the face of mass tragedy?

      Someone actually says “If we only had a sign,” and then they get one, when quiet young Leo (Lucas Quintana) somehow comes back to life after an apparent drowning. He gets stigmata, resurrects an animal, and even builds a ramshackle ark from salvaged wood, with the townsfolk first celebrating, then turning against, their apparent saviour. (Sound familiar?)

      Just what it all means is frustratingly enigmatic. The town comes off as a sort of mythical place passed over by modern technology, its denizens not really acting as fully developed characters but as, well, vessels for higher meaning.

      If there’s divine intervention here, it’s in the way the film is shot. Windows yield beautifully waving lace curtains, dresses billow in sea water, and the church and destroyed school open to constantly crashing waves. The sky is either blotted with ominous clouds or pink with dusk. The film is at its best when no one talks—when a young widow, say, goes to clip a perfect red rose and then moves the shears to her own ring finger.

      For many, the strange, dreamlike images will be enough. But they allude to something more powerful than the film can ultimately deliver.