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by Jay Seaver

"As with most things in nature, water will mess you up given half a chance."
5 stars

"Aquarela" serves as your semi-regular reminder that water is metal as heck and will mess you up if you think you can take it for granted. It occasionally seems to have been built as a sort of subversive parody of white noise/relaxation videos, resembling them at first glance but offering up raw power, a caution about what we may unleash.

Director Viktor Kossakovskiy breaks the film into four clear acts: In the first, we see a team examining the ice on a frozen river near St. Petersberg that has started to thaw with spring, locating and retrieving a car that has fallen through. Eventually the camera moves to what I believe to be Greenland, a sailing ship in the foreground giving scale to the glaciers as pieces cleave off and fall into the sea. The camera follows that ship to sea, where a pod of dolphins soon gives way to choppy waters with massive swells. Eventually the camera sinks under the water and emerges in a flooded city.

Kosakovskiy gives the audience characters at the start, but mostly pushes people to the side thereafter to focus more on the raw power at work, and at first glance this reads as man's meagerness in the face of nature. Look closer, though, and Kossakovskiy establishes how the film is talking about climate change with one darkly funny but potentially tragic exchange ("Why are you driving here?" / "Usually, the ice melts three weeks later!"), and then tracks it. The first segment not only features cars, but general combustion, as a building burns in the background despite the apparent indifference of those on the ice, which is followed by glaciers melting, an unpredictable sea, and finally coastal cities becoming uninhabitable. For an extra bit of apocalyptic emphasis, the audience gets to see survivors huddling in caves before the film ends on a more conventionally beautiful bit of nature photography. Humanity may destroy itself by not recognizing how much raw power nature has bottled up, but the world itself will keep turning.

Even if that narrative is perhaps a bit more of a stretch than Kossakovkiy intends the audience to make, he still gives his film a personality. For a movie that is generally serious about its subject's terrifying power, it has a tremendously funny first act, one that invites the audience to look quizzically at men putting their ears to the ice beneath them, shake their heads at how a car races across the frozen every time someone gets serious about this work and how people should know better, and guiltily laugh every time a little bit more ice crumbles underneath someone in dark slapstick. At the other end, one can feel the camera operator leaning into the wind as they try to walk one block in a hurricane. The light-industrial soundtrack sounds like near-parody at first, but feels more appropriate as the film goes on, blending with the fierce waves. Icebergs breaking off of glaciers sound like bullets when they're off-screen.

Maybe they won't to everyone. Still, one thing that fascinated me as I watched the film was how I kept seeing human shapes in the images, from icebergs that look like fallen giants to briefly-glimpsed faces in choppy water. wonder to what extent that's intentional selection and how much is just human nature, our brains being wired to see and read faces, and maybe a reminder of how powerful forces got attributed to gods. We see something person-like and decide it can be understood or reasoned with. It is, as one may expect, somewhat easier with the gorgeous footage shot for this movie, which alternates between conventionally majestic framings to unusual angles. The filmmakers tend to hold a shot but there's still some sort of motion most of the time, whether the parallax scroll of boats and ice moving down a river or the churning of the sea.

I hope that this gets a 4K/48fps video release. While "Aquarela" looks amazing on the big screen, that exhibition is limited, and I wonder what the frightening clarity of that sort of image would bring when seen in someone's living room.

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originally posted: 01/10/20 06:09:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  16-Aug-2019 (PG)
  DVD: 12-Nov-2019


  DVD: 12-Nov-2019

Directed by
  Viktor Kossakovsky

Written by
  Viktor Kossakovsky
  Aimara Reques


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