I recently saw Victor Kossakovsky’s astonishing Aquarela (Portuguese for “watercolor”) at The Landmark theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan. This is not your typical documentary.
First off, it’s filmed at a frame rate of 96 frames per second. Projectors capable of showing it at this speed are extremely rare, but many theaters, including The Landmark, are showing it at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the typical 24). This
translated to incredible detail, especially of water spray, ice crystals, any kind of small particles. It also provided very smooth, seamless camera pans that felt very natural.
This visually breathtaking nature documentary contains zero voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, and very little music score. What scoring there is is original rock
music, which was not my favorite, but worked whenever used (which was sparingly, fortunately). The sound (in Dolby Atmos), though not the star of the film, was a vital supporting player and was especially effective in the sequence of Greenland’s calving glaciers. Hearing glacial shifts, cracks, and bellows all around you was very powerful. I suspect this will be equally effective experienced in a reference-quality home theater, when Aquarela receive its inevitable UHD Blu-ray and streaming release.
But the true star of this film is water, captured in its many different forms all around the world.
The first sequence takes place atop a frozen lake in Siberia, where, during the coldest months, people drive across to get from one place to another. What we soon discover, however, is that the ice has begun to melt (three weeks earlier than usual,
according to one victim of the thaw) and cars are actually falling through the ice while people are driving them! It is one of the scariest parts of the film, and an unexpected choice to open with. I found myself on the edge of my seat; and the matter of life and death, juxtaposed with the calmness of the expanse of glass-like ice, was chilling (pardon the expression).
The next sequence, possibly my favorite, showed the glaciers of Greenland as they calved then fell, bobbed, rolled, and floated in the icy waters below. Their dramatic, smooth, and graceful movements made me feel like I was watching a well-choreographed ballet. Also, as the ice emerged from the water, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from a film I watched over and over as a kid, Superman: The Movie, specifically the moment when the Fortress of Solitude was being created, with shards of ice rising to the surface. But, astonishingly, Aquarela is real. No special effects here.
A calmer moment showed icebergs silently drifting in the sea. Like one might when looking at the clouds, I found myself seeing things in their shapes. One iceberg looked like a dragon, for example, as it slithered past a sailboat with a busy crew
that took no notice of the creature. On a side note, the floating bergs also reminded me of the incredible pastel art of Zaria Forman (shown at right).
At times I found it difficult to tell the scale of what I was looking at, but that is part of Aquarela’s magic. And, like many great magic tricks, the solution is even more impressive than the
trick itself. Kossakovsky masterfully keeps us guessing until he gives us a long shot of a large sailing vessel anchored alongside an immense, mountainous glacier. The sailboat resembles a tiny toy next to it.
Next, we see icebergs from a vantage I had never seen before, neither in film nor photograph. Shot from underneath, along their crystalline surfaces, are some of the most beautiful closeups in the film, of which there are many. This portion is probably the most abstract of the entire film and it’s like a visual fantasy straight out of Fantasia. The color and quality of the light glowing through the ice and water is something to behold.
Subsequent sequences include more man versus nature (a theme sprinkled throughout) including a crew of two navigating a sailboat in a storm, evacuation and devastation from the Oroville Dam crisis in California, and a riveting drive through the streets of Miami in the heart of Hurricane Irma.
The film ends with gorgeous shots of Angel Falls in Veneruela, but my other favorite sequence (and certainly one of the more magnificent moments in the film) comes about 3/4 of the way through, consisting of beautiful closeups of ocean waves. The detail of the sea spray, the fluidity of the water, and the crispness of the image (the high frame rate certainly helps here) are truly mesmerizing. And again, what is the scale? Are these waves actually just tiny ripples or giant tsunamis?
My overall reaction to Aquarela was one of wonder, amazement, and fear. Wonder of how the actual filming of it is, in and of itself, man versus nature. Amazement at how very small we as humans are and how much of our world is water. And fear of what’s happening to our planet and how delicate the balance between man and nature really is.
This film offers us the chance to witness nature in a way that few ever can, and I think it will translate well to Blu-ray. This will be something to watch on your biggest screen with your best playback system when it does become available for home viewing. And if you can catch it in the theaters, check the movie listing for HFR (high frame rate) to see it at 48 frames per second.
Glenn Bassett is a bit of a Renaissance man (designer, artist, writer, director, and actor) living
in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats, Bruno and Roxy. Most recently, he was
production designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed
Tanner. Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original
musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper, which had a developmental reading last year starring Tony
Award-winner Alice Ripley. He is currently designing the set for Salt Marsh Opera Company’s
fall production of Pagliacci.