'Aquarela': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Dive in, the water's lovely.

Film artist Victor Kossakovsky pays tribute to water in all its forms with this documentary, filmed in such diverse locations as Greenland, Venezuela, Siberia's Lake Baikal and the middle of the Atlantic.

The latest ravishing visual feast from Victor Kossakovsky, Russia’s most poetic formalist filmmaker at the moment, Aquarela takes a deep dive into watery realms around the world, offering up an experience that can truly be described as immersive. Composed from footage shot with the latest high-tech stabilization equipment and waterproof cameras, and filming at a rate of 96 frames per second, this stream of hyper-high-definition images records glaciers, icebergs, mountainous waves, rushing waterfalls and so on to create a cinematic collage that verges on abstraction. The title, the Portuguese word for a watercolor painting, evokes the artist’s technique that uses pigmented water, an apt allusion indeed. In the supporting publicity materials for Aquarela, Kossakovsky and others talk about water itself being the mutable, infinitely temperamental star, the real protagonist, the viewpoint through which the film’s “story” is told. That actually does wash here, representing a credible way to parse the film that’s not just art-speak waffle or PR puff.

Even though there’s no narration or commentary of any sort and the images are accompanied mostly just by crisply recorded source sound (there are occasional, somewhat tacky intrusions of heavy metal music as well as more inconspicuous atonal compositions), it’s easy to infer an ecological message here. Clearly, the film is extolling respect for the natural world’s majesty, immense power and gob-smacking beauty, leaving viewers to fill in the gaps themselves with statistics about climate change. Premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, which also showcased Kossakovsky’s globe-trotting panorama ¡Vivan las antipodas! in 2011, this compelling work has a better chance of travel than most non-narrative films now, especially since audiences have gotten hooked on the kind of “cinema of attractions” offered by 3D Imax theaters and ultra-high-def systems. At the very least, it’s got a promising future as demonstration fodder in big-box stores for the latest home entertainment kit.

There’s no obvious, conventional story unfurling here, but Kossakovsky and his co-editors Molly Malene Stensgaard and Ainara Vera have contrived to create a sense of narrative flow (apologies for the torrent of liquid metaphors throughout this review) from one segment to the other. The opening section, shot literally in and around Lake Baikal in Siberia, ebbs into the next tranche of footage, shot mostly around Greenland. Throughout, we see water in all its states, but first it’s mostly solid ice, then a liquid in raging seas and still waters, and finally it makes the transition to gas in the last section, a study of Angel Falls in Venezuela. At that point, the water becomes airborne, rainbow-making droplets that evolve into clouds that will redistribute water back into the ecosystem. In other words, your basic, classically cinematic circular three-act structure.

Words, however rhapsodic, can’t really do justice to the beauty of the cinematography here, captured by Kossakovsky and Ben Bernhard, which throughout is framed with a painterly eye that emphasizes textures and subtle plays of color, especially in the arctic interludes, where white interplays with a wide gamut of blues, teals and greens that are tinged with pinks. The wide-angle lens creates surfaces where it’s difficult to judge scale given everything seems to be in focus at once. It’s only the intrusion of, say, a flock of gulls, a house on the hill or a person traversing the edge of the frame that reveals how vast — or tiny — any given landscape really is.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that for all the emphasis on these massive waterscapes, real people appear throughout, particularly in the opening sequence where the death of a motorist, spotted plunging into Lake Baikal, is caught accidentally on camera, like a winter version of the famous Bruegel painting Landcape With the Fall of Icarus. Elsewhere, we watch experienced sailors Hayat Mokhenache and Peter Madej maneuver a yacht through a tempest, their faces grim with concentration and intercut with quasi-aerial shots taken by a camera lashed to the top of a mast. Snatches of dialogue are heard, and translated by subtitles, but no one is interviewed as such. Instead, the strongest voice, supervised by regular Kossakovsky collaborator Alexander Dudarev, throughout is that of the water itself, especially when heard as raging waves or crackling ice pinging and tinkling or crashing angrily as icebergs crack off glaciers. What a shame that the use of cello and electric guitar-dominated instrumental tunes by Finnish metal band Apocalyptica is deployed with inane literalness for some of the ocean sequences. Some viewers might feel silence would have been much more effective, but one could always mute the sound if watching at home.


Production: A Participant Media, Mitteldeutsche Medienforderung, Creative Scotland, BFI, Deutscher Filmforderfonds – DFFF, Medienboard Berlin – Brandenburg, Danish Film Institute presentation, in association with Cactus World Films, of a Ma.ja.de Film, Aconite, Danish Documentary production, in co-production with Louverture Films, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, in association with ARTE, Rio Negro Producciones, Anorak Film
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Screenwriters: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques
Producers: Aimara Reques, Heino Deckert, Sigrid Dyekjaer
Co-producers: Joslyn Barnes, Susan Rockefellar, Emile Hertling Peronard
Executive producers:
Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Mark Thomas, Isabel Davis, Sawsan Asfari, Maya Sanbar, Madge Bray, Matthias Ehrenberg, Frank Lehmann 
Directors of photography: Victor Kossakovsky, Ben Bernhard
Editors: Victor Kossakovsky, Molly Malene Stensgaard, Ainara Vera
Sound: Alexander Dudarev
Sales: Protagonist/Lionsgate

Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
89 minutes