‘Aquarela’: Stunning environmental images from Kossakovsky might leave you gasping
Had you asked me about four weeks ago, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would have been the definitive must-see-on-the-big-screen movie. Why? Well, Robert Richardson’s lush era-illuminating cinematography, for one thing, and the amazing sets that re-create 1969 Los Angeles. But the answer changed last week after I drank in a screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s commanding contemplation about water, “Aquarela.” It was an outright obliteration with all the shock and awe that only Mother Nature can deliver when at her extreme-weather fiercest.
“Aquarela” doesn’t have a narrative arc in the conventional sense. It’s more a mounting experience that washes over you. Tagging it as a hybrid of a Godfrey Reggio film (“Koyaanisqatsi”) and an ICA visual art installation doesn’t quite do it justice, but it gets you close. There’s little human dialogue and never any location tags as it slips seamlessly from Siberia to Greenland, California and ultimately, the breathtaking Angel Falls in Venezuela – with a harrowing few moments inside the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Much of the soundtrack too comes from mama nature herself: the perilous pop and crack of vast spans of ice, towering waves crashing down and the harsh, whistling whip of the wind; to take the edginess of this beautifully frightening omnipotence higher, the punk-metal music by the aptly named group Apocalyptical (imagine a Gwar and Nine Inch Nails collaboration) digs into your temples at turns. It’s almost too much, but that’s part of the point.
The film begins with its most placid, yet harrowing sequence as team of Siberians retrieve a car from beneath an ice-capped lake using just old-fashioned wood and rope tackle. It’s riveting, though a tedious task to observe as they work in near silence, often lying prone to peer through the thick crystal sheet and occasionally crashing through the surface with nonchalant regard. We learn those who drove the car escaped through the hatch – driving on the ice is how these guys get around. Later we see from afar another car cruising the ice, and it too drops from sight. The ensuing scene will not soon leave you.
The film mostly showcases its subject’s majestic indomitableness in aesthetically wondrous framings that are at once hypnotic and eye popping – an exception being a look at those pinned down by Irma and fighting to hold on amid devastating mudslides and massive flooding. There’s no question the film’s a dispatch underscoring climate change and the need for us to clean up our act. Hard to argue, and done so in subtly contemplative fashion the way Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2013 locally shot documentary, “Leviathan” and Werner Herzog’s 2007 cold dive “Encounters at the End of the Word” so elegantly did.
The real power in “Aquarela” is Kossakovsky‘s patiently observant cinematography, which captures some moments that even seem implausible – yet there they are. Kossakovsky shot the film at 96 frames, something of a broadening trend. It’s a true spectacle and wonderment that should taken in its intended natural format.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.