Movie Review: Aquarela (2018)

Viktor Kossakovsky’s new film, Aquarela, is billed as a documentary that “takes audiences on a deeply cinematic journey through the transformative beauty and raw power of water.”  If you hear “documentary about water” and think you’ll be hearing the soothing whispers of David Attenborough, think again.

I’d characterize it instead as:  a high-resolution photographic painting using water as the medium; a tone poem composed for calving iceberg and siren; a horror film in which water is the monster.  It reminded me of my first encounter, at age 7, of Disney’s Fantasia (in a large-format theater, not on a TV screen) –beautiful, abstract, trippy, compelling, frightening.

Most films that feature water use it as a setting, an environment against which a human drama plays out.  Water is often symbolic, used to create a foil for the struggles of the characters.  In Aquarela, water is the only character.  Using high-definition cinematography Kossakovsky captures an amazing palette of water’s colors and textures in all three of its naturally-occuring states.  Starting with ice, then liquid water, then water vapor blown by wind or spewing from waterfalls or hanging as clouds, the director explores these familiar substances starting with eerie, haunting, alien shots of icebergs both from the air and under the water.  When the film transitions from arctic venues to temperate climates, the palette is suddenly filled with grays, browns, yellows – the haunting blues are washed away and replaced with the reflected colors of asphalt, mud, rock, and concrete.

Against the icy panoramas, we hear and then see the calving of icebergs.  We hear sirens alerting human beings to ice, to waves, to wind, to flooding – and we hear the sounds of water exerting its incredible power.  Periodically, the scenes are overlaid with a metal soundtrack (by Eicca Toppinen) designed to emphasize the more disturbing and frightening aspects of what we are experiencing. I’m not sure the images require any auditory enhancement.  A combination of drone, helicopter, boom, ship, and ground-based cameras create the feeling of being truly in the middle of the images, particularly at the many times in which Kossakovsky shoots without a horizon, without any reference point to give the viewer a sense of scale or directionality.  At those points all you can do is “go with the flow” and feel yourself swept away by ice, ocean, rain, river, or clouds.

The occasional people in the film – men trying to rescue cars that have sunk beneath the ice sheet on a frozen lake; a couple sailing a boat across a stormy ocean; shadowy figures in a cave being flooded by water – are less alive than water itself.  They are at the mercy of the monster, and they must either fight or drown.  Humans in action are often performing repetitive tasks such as turning a crank of some sort, chopping at ice, or waving other humans onward, rather than having any complex interaction with the water or each other.

Likewise, the occasional non-human organisms – sea birds, whales, dolphins, translucent invertebrates, palm trees – are dwarfed by the water around them, battered, merely a backdrop for the main character.  With no narration and extremely sparse subtitled dialogue we cannot get to know these human or non-human organisms, we cannot understand how they got into the situations in which they find themselves.  We can only identify with them as physical bodies subjugated by the overwhelming power of water. 

Aquarela is hypnotic, to the point where one of my companions, underslept, began to doze.  The film has no explicit political theme, so If your expectation is that you will learn some facts or informed opinions about what water is or how it will change in the future, you may also find yourself nodding off.  However, if you are ready to have a close encounter with water, without ever getting wet, this film creates an experience of water like no other I have seen.  Be prepared to be immersed.

Aquarela is currently showing in a number of larger cities; by the end of August it will be released more broadly.

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