The documentary Aquarela encompasses a message about climate change, but don’t plan on seeing Al Gore with a PowerPoint presentation. You shouldn’t expect to hear narration by Morgan Freeman either. As a matter of fact, the film doesn’t even have a narrator. Rather, director Victor Kossakovsky drops us in the middle of an icy landscape with no context. While there are people we encounter throughout this journey, we’re given little insight into who they are with zero talking heads. The closest thing the film has to a character is Kossakovsky’s camera, which captures some of the most sweeping imagery in modern filmmaking.
Aquarela is an exploration of all things water, trekking across frozen lakes, chasing mighty icebergs, and sailing through unforgiving seas. All the while, the audience is left wondering how the filmmakers shot any of this without falling through the ice, stumbling overboard, or dying from hypothermia. On top of all that, how did they keep the camera dry? These people literally endured a perilous Atlantic storm, even though the filmmaking crew apparently never sailed before. Granted, they had sailors accompanying them, but this was still reportedly the worst storm in a century. Then, just when you think the film couldn’t possibly be more death-defying, we’re flung into the midst of Hurricane Irma. Alex Honnold might’ve risked his life in Free Solo, but Aquarela earns its reputation as the most dangerous documentary of all time.
Speaking of Free Solo, Aquarela is a cinematic experience that would benefit from an IMAX release. With its gargantuan glaciers and 30-foot waves, a visual feat of such gravitas deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Capturing some of the shots in this movie must’ve been the equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle. Ben Bernhard and Kossakovsky are worthy of a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination, both for their craft and for putting their lives on the line for that craft. Even the most peaceful shot in the movie, a view of Angel Falls in Venezuela, is as intimidating as it is beautiful.
Aquarela spells nothing out to its audience, forgoing the use of title cards. It doesn’t even have a bittersweet original song performed by Scarlett Johansson or Melissa Etheridge. Instead, Eicca Toppinen incorporates a heavy metal score, which is inclined to throw viewers off even more. On one hand, this abstract, minimalist approach is quite refreshing. The world can no longer write off climate change as a myth, but people are also sick of listening to activists preaching about Mother Nature. We don’t need Captain Planet to fly down and shove the moral down our throats. Film is a visual medium and Aquarela takes full advantage of that.
While the environmental theme will be clear to some, others may miss what the film is trying to say. Without any background information, Aquarela can at times feel like the most expertly shot home movie ever made. As gorgeous as the movie is, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments that had me squirming in my seat. At just barely 90 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome per se, but those looking for a narrative-driven film are going to get restless quickly. This is basically the documentary equivalent of All Is Lost, a survival drama that put Robert Redford on the high seas for 105 minutes with little exposition or dialogue. If filmmaking experiments like that intrigue you, Aquarela is sure to earn your admiration, although it’s not the easiest movie to love.