If a man murders a child, we sentence him to death, but when God kills 46 children, we are told to praise him.”
That is just one of a number of somber lines delivered in “The Vessel,” the directorial debut of 34-year-old Cuban-American Julio Quintana, a Catholic, who is also the film’s writer.
“I really wanted to address the idea of mystery in the modern world,” Quintana said in a telephone interview Sept. 7, before the Hollywood premiere of the film that stars Martin Sheen as a Catholic priest. Sheen is also a co-executive producer of the movie, which opens on Sept. 16.
Quintana graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with degrees in radio-television-film and religious studies.
“I went there as a really on-fire, devout young Catholic wanting to learn more about my faith, and really wanting to prove my faith by studying history.
“I thought, naively, that if I read enough old documents or learned ancient Greek, somehow I’d be able to get past all of these unproven mysteries and prove what’s really true. I think anybody who’s ever even attempted to do that sees how laughable that attempt is for an 18-year-old kid.”
But it was a teachable moment. “I very quickly realized basically why we call it faith and I had to come to grips with the fact that there are things in life that I’m not going to be able to prove to myself.”
Quintana said he then had to decide, at a very young age, the answer to such questions as: “Is there room for hope and beauty and mystery and love? Just because I can’t prove something scientifically, to myself or to someone else, does that mean that it’s not true, does that mean that it’s invalid?
“I tried to explore those themes in the movie,” he said.
The synopsis of the movie: After a massive tidal wave destroys an elementary school, washing 46 students and their teacher out to sea, music, dancing and childbirth disappear from a small fishing village in an unnamed place. All dialogue scenes were filmed in English and Spanish, creating the same movie in two different languages.
Quintana hopes that people who see the film “will walk away with a sense that, even if there’s things that they don’t understand, even if they’ve lost a loved one, whatever they’re facing in their life, there’s still always room for hope and optimism and, eventually, the clouds will part.”
Despite its early dark theme, beauty abounds in “The Vessel.”
“The beautiful thing about imagery in cinema for me,” Quintana said, “is that if you create the right image, you give the audience the ability to read subtext and assume that there’s something else deeper going on below the surface.”
It’s inevitable, he said, being raised a Catholic, that he uses symbolism in the film, “whether water, boats, donkeys, things that resonate with people.”
The gradual crescendo of music “represents their spiritual life, and the arc of their spiritual awakening over the course of the film,” Quintana said of the film’s bereaved characters.
Quintana’s wife, Marla, 33, is the producer. Terrence Malick and Sarah Green are the executive producers. One of the central characters is played by Quintana’s brother Lucas, 27, for whom he wrote the movie. Another brother, Alex, 30, is credited for boat design and engineering.
Julio and Marla Quintana were married at St. Laurence Church in Sugar Land, Texas. Their son Julio Manuel III turns 1 in October. The family regularly attends the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Schoenstatt in Austin, Texas.
Quintana said his “unlimited curiosity about people and relationships and about faith, and how we interact as human beings, and what is our purpose here” was very useful.
“That curiosity has driven me to try to explore things that are really personal and genuine,” he said.
He believes most aspects of filmmaking can be taught or learned from a textbook or just from practice.
Filmmakers to whom he most relates, though, he said, are those “who have questions about life and a curiosity that just can’t be satisfied until they play it out on screen.”
As for Quintana, that’s his biggest advantage. “There’s things I want to know, and I don’t know any other way to figure them out.”