REVIEW: 'The Vessel' examines tragedy and asks: Where was God?

by Michael Foust |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – If a tidal wave hit a small coastal town and swept away the school building – killing all the children inside -- how would it impact your view of life and of, well, God?

That's the provocative question posed by a new movie, The Vessel, that's out in select theaters this weekend. Starring Martin Sheen as the town's Catholic priest, the film tackles tragedy and grief head-on by examining them through the prism of one of the most heartbreaking thoughts we can imagine: the widespread death of innocent kids. For much of the film, the story has the feel of a modern-day parable.

"We have to stay focused on God," says Sheen's character, Father Douglas.

But few people in the town are able to do that – even though 10 years have passed. Instead of looking toward the future, they remain focused on the past, contemplating the tragedy and wanting to ensure it won't happen again. That sounds impossible, but they have a plan: They won't have any more children. As one young couple tells Father Douglas: There simply is too much sadness in the world. Why bring a baby into that environment?

"Sometimes it feels as if God has abandoned this place," a woman tells Father Douglas.

The film spotlights a mother named Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey) and her adult son named Leo (Lucas Quintana), both of whom were impacted greatly by "the wave." Fidelia lost a son in the tragedy, and ever since, she has talked very little. She stares, for long periods of time, at nothing in particular. Leo, too, is grieving, although he has a desire to get on with his life – perhaps move to another town – yet he keeps feeling a tug back to his hometown. He also must deal with the knowledge that his mom loved his brother – the one who died – more than she loved him.

Then there's the widow named Soraya (Aris Mejias), whose husband died during the wave, and who regularly smells his books so she can remember his scent.

It may sound like a depressing film, but it's not. In the end, there's more than enough hope so you can walk to the car with a smile on your face. Still, it does force us to ask questions about how we deal with grief in our own lives. For example: How long should we grieve? Is Christ truly our refuge and strength in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1)? And if the most important people in our lives were suddenly gone, how would we handle it?

The Vessel is an artistic film, but in a good way. It is not your typical fast-paced Hollywood summer film. Instead, it's a movie that uses its slower pace to its advantage, pulling you into the sad rhythm of a life consumed by a tragic past.

The Catholic faith plays a central role in the film, although the issues the film raises transcend denominations.

The Vessel is rated PG-13 for some partial nudity/sensuality and thematic elements.

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5.

Language: He—(4), pi—ing (1), Ch—st (1), G-d (1).

Violence: None

Sexuality: We see a nude Soraya, from behind, sitting on a bed, trying to seduce Leo. He declines and leaves. We also hear a joke about boys "looking up the girls' skirts."

Michael Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade and is the father of four small children. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelFoust, or on his website: MichaelFoust.com