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VENICE 2018 Out of Competition

Review: Aquarela

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- VENICE 2018: Victor Kossakovsky tackles the power of water at 96 frames per second

Review: Aquarela

Multi-award-winning director Victor Kossakovsky dedicates his new documentary, Aquarela [+see also:
trailer
interview: Victor Kossakovsky
film profile
]
, playing out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, to the inimitable Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, who made one of Kossakovsky’s all-time favourite documentaries, Spiritual Voices. Sokurov’s five-hour hybrid documentary, released in 1995, saunters through a desolate environment where soldiers guard the Tajik-Afghan border, and is notable for its long takes, image-processing methods, and the sounds of Mozart, Messiaen and Beethoven, which are just as important as the action on screen.

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In his distinguished career, Kossakovsky has favoured films with a strong conceptual point of departure that examine the environment we live in and man’s relationship with it. Aquarela follows that winning formula. Ostensibly, the movie is about the power of water; there is not much in the way of narrative structure, as the film prefers to ebb and flow, like waves. Its main focus is on aesthetic expression. The thumping soundtrack is designed to make full use of Dolby Atmos sound systems, and the tunes rock over the lush, spectacular images that play at 96 frames per second, which is twice the speed of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies.

The incredible opening sequence is the longest section and also the highlight of this uneven film. On the precarious frozen waters of Russia’s Lake Baikal, Southern Siberia, the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, rescuers are digging away at the ice. It seems like a futile exercise until they discover a car under the water. They pull it to the surface, and we see luggage and clothes still in the back. What is it doing here? Why? It’s hard to tell with the minimal dialogue. We get a better idea when later we see drivers belting across the ice, risking death, using the frozen body of water as a shortcut. A car crashes through the ice, and it’s more exhilarating than an action sequence in any Bond movie. When the rescuers arrive at the crash scene, the survivors are screaming for a lost one, and the suggestion is that these are Mongolians trying to cross into Russia. It’s a magnificent, beautiful sequence, with landscapes of ice and mountains to match the grandeur of the desert vistas in Lawrence of Arabia.

We stay on Lake Baikal as the seasons change and the waters thaw. There is an amazing shot of the ice moving up and down, making the area seem like the very belly of the Earth, breathing. It is beautiful, but it does not last.

After this almost tangible sequence, the film veers into the increasingly abstract, and the action jumps to Miami in the throes of Hurricane Irma and Venezuela’s mighty Angel Falls. These shots seem more like news items accompanied by industrial sounds. Although the power of water is omnipresent in the midst of a hurricane, there is none of the novelty nor the narrative hooks and shocks seen in the Lake Baikal sequence. The lush beauty of Angel Falls is almost too vast for even a director as skilled as Kossakovsky to capture.

The film seems to want to show how minor man’s place is when compared to the vast size and energy of water. Aquarela is reminiscent of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, in both its size and its scope, and in its use of the aural with the visual, and that can never be a bad thing.

Aquarela is an Aconite Productions (UK), ma.ja.de. (Germany) and Danish Documentary (Denmark) production, in co-production with Louverture Films (USA). Its international sales are handled by the USA’s Lionsgate Entertainment.

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