Sunday, January 29, 2023

Telluride Review: ‘River’

Not to be confused with a similarly titled sci-fi suspense film that squeaked into release in July, this River, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, is a visually majestic, significantly airborne journey over a wide variety of rivers around the world. It is, on a moment-to-moment basis, stunning to behold, and there are ecological messages to be received by the receptive. At the same time, a little of this can go a long way, and there is a level of pretension that will be indulged by some and not by others.

Rivers, the narration aptly points out, are the veins of the world, the source of life without which human, animal and plant life would quickly expire. Visually, Jennifer Peedom’s film is a spectacular display of, and tribute to, the rushing waters that feed the planet. The uncredited cinematography, much of it in slow-motion, is uniformly magnificent, as the serenely floating cameras capture the liquid’s textures, speed, dangers, unpredictability and exciting beauty, revealing perspectives that you’d never see in real life.

Still, there’s the nagging issue of too much of a good thing. Bolstered by insistent classical music played by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and overly sanctimonious narration delivered in very deliberate tones by Willem Dafoe, the film slowly but surely acquires the air of a finger-wagging ecological lesson rather than occasion to be embraced as one sees fit. The damage that humans have wrought is self-evident in many of the images, so to be force-fed more school lecture material on a very familiar subject is, to put a point on it, off-putting and alienating.

Which is a shame, as the footage is genuinely spectacular. The cameras glide in a stately manner over the staggering variety of waterways. We see water rushing, fish jumping, mud and dry land where rivers used to flow, dams and their consequences.

Still, as beautiful as it all is, at a certain point one is inclined to shout, “Enough, already,” and get on to something with some tangible meaning that’s not just window dressing for the same ecological lessons we’ve been hearing for decades. It’s both gorgeous and almost unbearably pretentious, exquisitely dressed but with nowhere new to go.

Director Peedom previously made Sherpa, about contentious and tragic mountain climbing incidents in the Himalayas, in 2016, and then Mountain, in a similar vein to the present film.


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