In the compact documentary “Somewhere With No Bridges,” the director Charles Frank sets out to put a heartbeat to a memory. The movie’s ostensible subject, Richie Madeiras, was 44 in October 1999 when he fell from his boat. Days later, divers pulled his body from the water a few hundred yards off Martha’s Vineyard, where he had deep roots, made lifelong friends and worked as a shellfish constable helping to protect the island’s precious natural resources. A local paper said of Madeiras: “Friends and family say he was born to fish.”
The genesis of this documentary was the enduring impact that Madeiras’s death had on friends and family, including on Frank’s father, Dale. Charles Frank was just about to turn 5 in October 1999. “My family likes to joke that before the age of 12, I don’t remember anything,” he says in voice-over soon after the movie begins. That isn’t true, he continues, as the camera holds on a handsomely framed aerial shot of lapping ocean waves. He remembers how his father reacted to the loss of his close friend.
“He stepped out of his car and collapsed into my mother’s arms,” Charles says, as the waves keep coming and he methodically draws out the words, as if from the deep. “It was the first time I sensed that something was wrong, and it was the first time I saw him cry.”
This childhood memory serves as a kind of creative statement of intent and an emotional through line for “Somewhere With No Bridges,” which seeks to explore Madeiras’s life and legacy through its many traces. This effort emerges piecemeal through a combination of archival imagery, original interviews and supplementary material, including a great many shimmering beauty shots of the island and its residents, though primarily men, on the water. Much like the photograph of Madeiras that Frank develops in an old-fashioned chemical bath, the documentary tries to turn a shadow into a portrait.
That never satisfyingly happens, partly because Frank never figures out what story he’s trying to tell: his, his father’s or Madeiras’s. Richie appears to have been a vividly charismatic, memorable figure, one who, decades after his death, his friends and family easily conjure up with tears and sweet and rollicking reminiscences. He was strong, mischievous and could take on a couple of guys at a bar all by himself. He loved, and he was loved in turn. Yet even as Frank keeps questioning and exploring, Madeiras and the full sweep of his life remain as out of focus as this documentary, an essay without a coherent thesis.
The title “Somewhere With No Bridges” refers to Martha’s Vineyard, which can only be reached via boat or plane. It’s a beguiling, resonant title that starts to seem considerably less romantic or helpful as the documentary evolves, intentionally or not, into a portrait of a cloistered community of men who fish, hunt, talk and talk some more, occasionally play ball and spend a lot of time on the water. There are women here, yes, but mostly what you are left with are men and their sorrow, notably that of Dale Frank, whose heart still breaks for Richie Madeira and whose filmmaker son, Charles, clearly yearns to understand why.