“Aquarela,” Victor Kossakovsky’s eye-popping, sometimes overpowering documentary, begins with a hazardous rescue operation unlike anything you might have seen before. On a vast plain of ice, a group of unidentified men search for something beneath the surface, peering on hands and knees and jabbing at it with sharp sticks.
Every so often, a searcher falls through the thawing crust and is anxiously yanked out, but it would be unfair to tell you what they’re looking for. Mysteries and revelations are as integral to this film’s impact as our certainty of the dangers faced by its makers: Kossakovsky and his crew might be invisible, but they are rarely far from our thoughts.
Surveying the increasingly antagonistic relationship between man and water, Kossakovsky travels widely to capture its many manifestations. Siberia and Greenland, California and Venezuela slip past without identification: where we are is always less important than what we’re seeing.
Captured in ravishing, frightening close-up, collapsing towers of blinding ice dissolve into glittering fairy dust, their jagged remains bobbing forlornly on the waves. A couple navigate a small sailboat through churning seas, as storm waves rear and heave above them and the water darkens to a viscous, oil-black roil. From time to time, the camera slides beneath anonymous bodies of water, offering all-too-brief periods of milky silence.
Similar in spirit to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2013 documentary, “Leviathan” (though less viscerally brutal), “Aquarela” isn’t your typical climate-change warning. Unspooling without voice-over or on-screen descriptions, the movie shows few people and fewer wildlife. Some woebegone pets huddle on a flooded Miami street; egrets strut through a sodden graveyard. Snatches of vaguely heavy-metal music (by the appropriately named Apocalyptica) punctuate the crack and roar of disintegrating glaciers, but the movie, like the elemental forces we continue to exacerbate, never explains itself.
Surrender to it, though, and a narrative — of spectacle, conflict and retaliation — will eventually become clear.
Filming at a dazzling 96 frames per second (though most theaters, lacking the equipment to handle this level of high definition, will screen at 48 f.p.s.), Kossakovsky and Ben Bernhard assemble a stunning, occasionally numbing sensory symphony. At the end, though, they take pity on us, signing off with a glistening rainbow over the world’s tallest waterfall.
It feels a little bit like hope.