A scene from "Garden by the Sea." (Alfredo Barroso )
"Garden in the Sea," a lovely documentary from German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, follows Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias as she creates a sculpture that will sit deep inMexico's Sea of Cortez just at the edge of Espiritu Santo Island.
It makes for a very internationally flavored film, one that ultimately relies on the language of sight and sound to speak eloquently about art and ecology and how they can be fused into something extraordinary.
The film begins in Madrid not long after Mexican philanthropist Manuel Arango's foundation commissioned Iglesias to create a piece that would reflect his country's efforts to preserve the natural habitat of the island. Her challenge was to envision something that would not disturb the land itself, and thus the notion of an undersea garden began to take shape.
Four years later, on a September day in 2010, the piece, called "Estancias Sumergidas" (Underwater Dwellings), was lowered to its home off the island, one of many that sit alongMexico'sBaja peninsula.
Riedelsheimer's projects often have a "how it works" quality. In this case it is a treat to watch an artist as she is doing the thinking, the experimenting and the research, which included some serious diving.
Iglesias' idea was to build a series of towering panels that would create a garden-like maze — accessible to sea life and any divers who dared — and would also tell a story. The latticework of the huge concrete screens is made up of hieroglyphic-like text drawn from the writings of 16th century missionary and naturalist Father Jose De Acosta. There are allusions to the lost empire of Atlantis.
The filmmaker takes us along as the artist experiments first with large-scale drawings, then tiny models she submerges in a fish tank. The ideas all become more concrete as she walks Arango and Rodolfo Ogarrio of the Mexican Foundation for Environmental Education through the models and mock-ups.
The documentary is better once it moves to Mexico and the island. Riedelsheimer lets the camera linger on a landscape of striking beauty and diversity. Ogarrio becomes the main tour guide, taking Iglesias through the history and the specifics of the various ecologies that exist there.
With its wind-swept deserts and mountains carved out of beautifully striated rock, the island itself looks like a sculpture. It floats in solitude on what appears to be an empty sea. Until, that is, the camera dives and takes us into an ocean teeming with life.
The photography has a gritty feel, rather than the eye-popping clarity and pristine polish that have come to characterize the look of so many nature films. That rawness grounds the documentary in reality while the music, which sounds as if it were pulled from a meditation tape, adds an ethereal feel.
For all the beauty, the complications that come with pulling off such a project slip in, providing some welcome conflict.
At times, the documentary gets too heavy handed in its ecology messages, but the artwork, and its inception, is exceptional. Seeing it after the sea has begun to claim it, schools of fish swimming through it, coral beginning to cling to its side, is close to mystical.
'Garden in the Sea'
No MPAA rating; in Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 9 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood