Julio Quintana’s new film, The Vessel, chronicles the story of a small Latin American town a decade after the loss of almost 50 schoolchildren in a tsunami. The film stars veteran Hollywood actor Martin Sheen as the local priest, Father Douglas, and Lucas Quintana as Leo, a young man who seeks to rebuild following a devastating decade of loss.

The film is deeply symbolic and raises significant questions regarding suffering, the bonds of family, and belief. While Quintana is motivated by his Catholic faith and Sheen is an outspoken Catholic, the film is not specifically religious and is never preachy.

I recently spoke with Quintana about his inspiration for the film and faith in an age of skepticism.

Crux: What was your inspiration to make the film The Vessel?

Quintana: I was raised in a devout Catholic family of Cuban heritage. When I was a child we always prayed regularly and attended mass every Sunday, but I don’t recall our family discussing the specific doctrines of Christianity or reading the bible at home. As a result I would say that our faith was more cultural than academic, which I think is more common in Catholic families.

When I reached high school, I became much more involved in the youth group at church, and my passion for the Catholic faith escalated very quickly. I went to the University of Texas to study mechanical engineering, but I soon had my first encounters with Protestants and Evangelical Christians. I was extremely impressed with their knowledge of scripture, and they challenged me relentlessly, especially on the question of faith vs. works as a means to salvation.

Soon I found myself neglecting my engineering classes in order to read more about my faith, so at the end of my freshman year I decided to change my major to Religious Studies. The focus of the program was Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and my goal was to study the history of these faiths to prove once and for all what was true. This of course was a naïve goal, and I very quickly realized that I could not use history to prove that any religion was right, nor could I prove that any was wrong. “If God wants us to know him,” I asked myself, “why do all my questions just lead to more questions?” This created in me a great deal of frustration and turmoil, and I’m still grappling with the implications of this experience.

Although I didn’t realize it as I was writing, The Vessel is reflective of my own spiritual journey in which I try to reconcile the apparent conflict between reason and faith. The characters in The Vessel ask themselves, “If God loves us, why would he take our children away?” Like me, the characters must ultimately accept that although there are things they cannot understand, mystery is not a reason for despair, but rather a source of wonder and beauty and love.

You’re a man of faith yourself. In what ways are you confronted with similar questions from your own friends, family, or colleagues who are skeptical of faith in the modern age? 

In my own circle I find that I am typically the one pestering everyone with faith questions! Most of the non-believers I know find these questions irrelevant, and it seems that many people of faith are hesitant to openly discuss any doubts for fear of being judged by their peers.

I think this is unfortunate because I don’t believe that a strong faith can be built on fear, so burying those doubts is like building a house on sand. My hope is that in some very small way, The Vessel can help illustrate that it’s okay to have questions because life is much more beautiful and complex than we can ever imagine.

The film is rich in symbolism—be it a communion host, a shirt button, or a boat. Do you think there is something particular to Catholicism and our reliance on symbols to teach and pass on stories?  

I think symbols are extremely powerful tools for evoking emotion because once they have been loaded with meaning, they tap into the psyche to unlock a lifetime of associations. This is something that the Catholic Church has always understood better than anyone.

For example, it’s very difficult for me to look at a red rose without subconsciously associating it with the Virgin Mary. Other people have historically associated red roses with Christian martyrdom, and more specifically a rose with five petals has even been associated with the five wounds of Christ. So when the audience sees a red rose on screen, they won’t literally think of the Virgin Mary or martyrdom, but the hope is that the image will evoke an emotional association with the concept of chastity or sacrifice or maternal devotion, much like a particular scent can immediately transport you back to a childhood memory.

Each person will interpret the symbols differently based on their own experiences, which leads to a unique and personal viewing experience that is ultimately out of my hands.

The film is also steeped with a message of the importance of community and the need for solidarity among peoples, particularly those who are suffering. These are certainly themes that Pope Francis, an Argentine, has preached with great frequency. In what ways is the setting of Latin America significant to this part of the narrative and the film’s message? 

In the U.S., community solidarity is a concept that has been mostly lost in our modern culture, and one of the byproducts of our strong individualism is a sense of isolation and disconnection from other members of our community. I felt that setting The Vessel in a fictional Latin American town would help create a sense of community that was essential for the story.

To further emphasize the community bonds, we eliminated all modern distractions such as computers, cell phones, and television, which creates the sense that the characters are trapped in a sort of time capsule together. The goal is that this approach will illustrate a major theme of the film, which is that although we feel detached from each other, we are actually all connected in ways that we may not always perceive.

A refreshing element of this film is that it isn’t preachy—but allows the beauty of the story and the filmography to speak for itself. Why do so few filmmakers and films surrounding faith fail to understand this? 

I think that most modern faith films don’t trust the audience enough, so they attempt to give the viewer a very narrow message with little room for interpretation. These films often tend to demonize characters that disagree with the central message of the film, which leads to unrealistic caricatures that are ultimately counterproductive and divisive.

I imagine the reason The Vessel doesn’t feel preachy is because it was never my intention to send a message or to convince anyone of anything. I simply had my own questions about faith and loss and human relationships, so I created a world in which I could explore and analyze those questions as honestly as possible.

Ultimately I have to trust that the audience will draw whatever conclusions are helpful to them on their own spiritual journeys.