Lush and moving, ‘Aquarela’ is the quintessential film for the new FilmScene Chauncey space

Still from ‘Aquarela,’ cropped.

Aquarela is shot at 96 frames per second, four times faster than most film. And, at last Friday’s opening, Iowa City’s FilmScene — Chauncey is the only theater in America where you can see it in its intended format. Combined with the new 7.1 surround sound system and the new chairs, the space itself is one made for the movie, and the movie is a perfect demonstration for why the new space is necessary. Even though all of the official social celebration of the new space occurred last week, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela feels like the opening the theater needed.

The film’s frame speed matters a great deal in watching Aquarela: You learn how to watch the movie in a new way, and the effect is immediate. The film is instantly — almost aggressively — immersive, but in a way that is gentler and more real than the kind of artificial spectacle of 3-D movies, or even of CGI renderings, which use tricks to create an effect. The speed allows your eyes to function as they normally do, but the film reveals more depth as you focus on it.

This is similar to the visual upgrade that a movie gets from VHS to DVD, or from DVD to Blu-Ray — but to an exponentially better caliber. The fact that one sees the central subject of the film, water, in such a lush, gripping, intense way presents viewers with something familiar in a greater context. It’s the experiential analogue of being familiar with a snow-covered hill and being confronted with an iceberg as snow melt brings it down. The combination of film speed and images felt like I was seeing more deeply into reality, as though the camera captures a reality that eludes everyday eyes.

Still from ‘Aquarela,’ cropped.

Part of the wonder of Aquarela is that it provides the viewer an opportunity to experience moving images without narrative, character or a sense of development. This allows your senses to be activated without your brain having to follow plot, characters or acting. Water provides a perfect choice as something that can be followed as it changes without the brain trying to read into it.

This effect is generated in part by the long shots that dominate many sequences of the movie, frequently paired with static elements that allow the eyes to focus on nuanced shifts of color and motion. The exquisite composition of these shots — an iceberg, a waterfall — allows the audience to witness change as simply as occurrence (rather than progress or regress).

The absence of plot and character also helps to shift perspective, to allow the viewer to register that changes are occurring, as they occur, from a vantage point that situates the changes within a larger whole. Aquarela let me see both cold and light in ways that I otherwise would never have known.

Still from ‘Aquarela,’ cropped.

Much of the movie shows the impersonal power of nature as it changes form. Water turns to ice, ice melts into water, at a phenomenal scale of stillness. Time moves differently. Clouds hover still above a frozen landscape, with a slender channel of motion that denotes the spaces where water flows.

The camera shows perspectives of ice beneath the surface of water, the smooth polish and textures. Streams of water cascading down a waterfall, waves crashing in the ocean, movement without purpose, spray colliding through surge — each color and pixel stunningly rendered, absorbing, engrossing. Aquarela is an opportunity to mirror nature and simply witness change at a vast, monumental scale.

Still from ‘Aquarela,’ cropped.

Shifting the audience expectation away from jump cuts and narrative — and even mostly away from the human — allows qualities to emerge that are generally overlooked. This is without question enhanced by FilmScene’s ability to screen the film in its intended form. Aquarela offers the chance to see light, to see color, to see darkness, to see even shades between colors that become difficult to convey in language. As an example: the colors on jackets — and even in some human faces — in the beginning of the movie shine out a bit from the material, as a significant visual contrast to the white/gray background. It feels like an odd blur, until you understand that it’s what is always potentially visible to us, if we knew how to have the time and patience to see. Through Aquarela‘s pairing of rapidity (frame speed) and slowness (long shots with little movement), the viewer encounters habits of sensing in a new way.

The soundtrack, which shows off the quality of the Chauncey’s speakers, provides a subtle, powerful element in the film. Eicca Toppinen, who composed the film, is the main innovator behind Finnish cello-metal band Apocalyptica. The post-metal melodies provide a powerful accompaniment to the sounds of water and ice — the genius of the movie is allowing the subtle tones and cracks of water to remain audible even when the music plays. It adds another layer to the film, opening up the intensity of the visuals by deepening and activating another of your senses.

Still from ‘Aquarela,’ cropped.

As Aquarela focuses on reflections of light — through ice, against water, through clouds — it also serves as a subtle reflection of the importance of water throughout the world. Small comments — a conversation about how the ice is melting three weeks earlier than normal, for example
— intersect with footage from Hurricane Irma in Miami to show that although water does not take human intervention personally, our influence in the world of climate still contributes to the world around us in an equally powerful, very damaging way. The film shows how human lives and buildings are temporary, just as fragile and fleeting as the roll of waves crashing into spray.

I do not know that I would recommend Aquarela on a laptop or cell phone. I strongly recommend that you experience the film while it shows at FilmScene. It is an invitation to understand what makes cinema important aside from narrative. It reveals how film can capture beauty as a work of art on its own. And it provides a sensory experience that Iowa City is fortunate to host.

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