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It’s a decidedly grim circle of life that moves us all in “Sea of Shadows,” a tight, troubling documentary eco-thriller that charts a compelling course of consequence from Chinese black-market apothecaries to the near-extinction of a rare whale in the Sea of Cortez, hitting on Mexican crime cartels and institutional corruption along the way. Austrian director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani has form in this field, having previously co-helmed Netflix’s urgent anti-poaching doc “The Ivory Trade,” and once more brings sturdy conventional craftsmanship and boots-on-the-ground engagement to an environmentally conscious, unabashedly heart-grabbing exposé. With its clear crowd-pleasing credentials confirmed by an audience award win at Sundance, “Sea of Shadows” will sail through the festival circuit; in an ideal match of sensibilities, National Geographic has secured worldwide rights.
Louie Psihoyos’s 2009 Oscar-winner “The Cove” provides the most obvious commercial precedent for “Sea of Shadows,” though Ladkani’s film is something of a shape-shifter, its startling story expanding into unexpected areas as it darts between land and sea, with the big blue at the mercy of inland misdeeds. At times, it seems to be two different films entirely — one, a gritty probe into the dark heart of a Baja California crime syndicate, the other an emotion-drenched study of a marine life rescue mission — that wouldn’t necessarily gel if not for the fact that tragic reality has inextricably yoked them together. Told with straightforward investigative nous and a judicious teardrop of anguished sentimentality, the film makes a virtue of its many clashing participants: journalists, scientists, activists, navy officials and fishermen, each with a slightly different stance on the matter.
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