After bowing at Venice in September of last year, Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary Aquarela finally washes ashore. This arty, poetic look at water in its many forms may enthrall some and bore others, but it’ll provide some pristine imagery along the way.
The film begins like a kind of suspense thriller, as locals from Lake Baikal in Siberia rescue vehicles that have fallen through a frozen lake. Immediately, there’s a sense of balance – the ingenuity of navigating the surface using ropes and giant pieces of wood, versus the fragility of the situation where even the smallest misstep can result in disaster.
The film was shot using High Frame Rate photography (it was shot at 96 Hz, though projection rates vary), resulting in an image free from the softness and judder that normally constitutes the “cinematic” look. This isn’t any artificial frame interpolation, but the real thing. The images are startlingly effective in both clarity and scope. From the crashing waves of a cross-ocean sailing yacht to the impossibly high descent of Venezuela’s Angel Falls, the forms that water takes are evidenced in all these varying topographies and topologies, leaving viewers in a kind of quiet awe about humble H20.
As epic nature porn, Aquarela delivers in a big way. However, with only subtle narrative elements, it’s likely to lull as many audiences as it enthralls. As someone who found the 2012 “experiential documentary” Leviathan an interminable mess, I was rapt by this liquid journey, perhaps because it has more humility, more sense of composition and craft, and surely superior technical and filmmaking prowess.
The soundscape is nearly as ambitious as the HFR imagery, with a full Atmos mix that puts you in the midst of a maelstrom. The soundtrack, like the film itself, is at its best when it conveys an anxiety-inducing sense of our lack of control against this force of nature. Despite this, the film has moments of real humanity – those rescues that work or tragically fail, the small boat that somehow cuts through monstrous waves. Water is an element that dominates humanity, nearly crushing it, yet the film reminds us how we’ve tamed it in so many ways. More than that, we’re of the stuff, just as the glaciers and rising steam are. The movie finds interconnection between these forces and our own being.
As visual and aural splendor, Aquarela is a triumph – an ode to the oceans, seas, and flooded streets that wet our interest and shape our world. Its scope is ambitious and well realized. This is a narrative-free experimental film that nonetheless feels coherent and inviting. It’s a grand documentary that demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.