A Resurrection Movie: The Vessel
This weekend we feast the final victory of life over grim death, and forgiveness over sin. It’s a story we tell each spring, fittingly at the time when vegetable life, in the form of tiny green shoots, starts pushing up from the thawing earth. When animals start to court. When the whole teeming sea of God’s creatures on this fallen earth pushes back against the death that man’s sin earned us. We alone, of all the life on earth, were not created for death.
And in a lovely emblem of that, Jesus himself could not be contained by the grave, but burst forth on his own power, and broke the gates that our sins had built outside of heaven. As John Henry Newman once wrote, Christ’s life was too strong for death. That’s the life he offers us, if we will take it. Do we dare? Or are we too attached to the “way things work,” to the grinding, familiar routine of our fallen, self-wasting desires?
That’s the question that’s asked by one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in years. It came to my attention because its executive producer, and champion, is the brilliant Terrence Malick, whose recent films (Tree of Life, To the Wonder) have posed sharp questions of faith and meaning — the issues that Hollywood usually prefers to squirm away from. This new film, The Vessel, stars Martin Sheen, who divides his career between high-budget commercial movies, and small films that resonate with his deep Christian faith.
This is no happy-clappy, gather your pals from Young Life or Theology on Tap kind of movie. There’s a place for films like that, perhaps during “ordinary time,” when we aren’t marking solemn, glorious feasts of our common faith. No, The Vessel is sober and thought-provoking, lyrical and beautiful. It has the rich palette of colors and artful camera angles of a South American film, but you don’t have to squint at subtitles. It was filmed in the old-world parts of Puerto Rico, and all dialogue is English. The issues it raises are timeless and universal. They have been with us since our first parents found the body of their son Abel, the first human death ever recorded.
I can’t imagine how they reacted, but The Vessel gives us a hint. It’s the story of a coastal town that has known death, and known it abundantly: Ten years ago, a tidal wave struck its school, and washed every child in town out to sea. Since then, no couple has dared to conceive a baby, no one gets married, and all the town’s women dress exclusively in black. It’s not so much a culture of death as one of mourning, where people have lost any sense that life has purpose or meaning, and don’t know what to make of the God who let all this happen. It’s a town frozen in amber, where families bereft of hope seem like they’re waiting around to die.
Then a miracle happens. A small, strange miracle that seems quite unrelated to all the suffocating grief, but a miracle nonetheless. A young man, Leo (Lucas Quintana), is out by the water saying goodbye to his childhood friend, the latest young man who intends to leave the dying town and move to the city. They’ve been drinking, and a tussle lands them both in the waves. Both men are too drunk to swim, and they drown. But three hours later, as his mother and neighbors grieve him, Leo comes back to life. No one knows why, but the whole town comes to believe that he has been marked by God. He becomes a figure of hope to the town, and the beautiful woman he’d always secretly loved, Soraya (Aris Mejias) wakes up from her own dream of grief over her husband, who was drowned along with the children. She falls in love with Leo, and her new love awakens her back to life. She digs out of her closet all the colored dresses she used to love, and starts to wear them — to the horror, at first, of other women in the town.
More signs of life begin to stir. The town’s pastor, Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) notices that more people are coming to church, hopeful that God has given them a sign He still is interested in the village. Best of all, a young couple comes to Father Douglas, and announces that they now want to have a child. It seems that from Leo’s drunken accident, and its mysterious outcome, the seeds of new life have been planted.
But this is no fairy tale. The dark burden of grief that the town has labored under won’t be banished without a struggle — a passion, really, though one that happens after the resurrection in the story. (It’s almost the Easter narrative in reverse.) The pastor realizes that the people of the village have made young Leo a kind of idol. They even think that he has the power to raise the dead to life. When that turns out to be false, they think that Leo has betrayed them. They turn on Leo and Soraya, turning them into the scapegoat for all the suffering they have been through. It is up to Father Douglas to hold them back, and redirect his suffering flock to a fuller, richer faith.
I don’t want to give away the film’s joyful, uplifting ending, and I haven’t done justice to the power with which this story is told. Suffice it to say that the film works through all the steps by which a “scapegoat” (such as Our Lord) is blamed for society’s suffering, as the Christian literary critic Rene Girard explained in a lifetime of world-famous scholarship and writing. As Girard discovered — and the discovery is what made him into a Christian — it is only the unique suffering and redemptive work of Jesus that can put an end to the sterile cycle of blame and recrimination that poisons our fallen world. The film ends with a vision of what reconciliation and forgiveness look like in flesh and blood.
I am proud to be helping the makers of The Vessel bring this award-winning film to the public. If you would like to see it play in your town or at your church, please contact Movie to Movement, the non-profit I founded to connect such powerful films with the viewing public.