“It belongs to no one and everyone,” a Greenpeace spokesperson observes of Antarctica, amid several awed talking-head statements at the outset of “Sanctuary.” It’s a true enough observation of the southernmost continent, though it opens up the question driving Álvaro Longoria’s short, straightforward environmental documentary: If the unpopulated ice kingdom is above human ownership, who takes responsibility for protecting it? Enter Spanish star Javier Bardem, thankfully not stepping into the breach as a self-appointed eco-warrior, but as a necessarily famous figurehead for a larger, less glamorous conservationist movement. That “Sanctuary” is modestly pragmatic rather than fawning about the function of celebrities in environmental activism is its most appealing and intriguing aspect, though it stops short of a deeper inquiry into the PR mechanics of saving the world.
For the most part, rather, Longoria’s film — produced in collaboration with Greenpeace, for which it effectively serves as an extended public service announcement — is a pleasantly conventional educational exercise, making its drier scientific truths palatable with sweeping Antarctic scenery and copious penguin-related cuteness, plus the rugged charisma of Bardem himself, serving as both the project’s stern, sincere narrator and its layman explorer. Centered specifically on an ongoing Greenpeace campaign to establish a protective marine sanctuary in the Weddell Sea — potentially the world’s largest such endeavor, covering an area of over 1.1 million square miles — “Sanctuary” oscillates between rapt wonderment at the region’s daunting natural beauty and weary cynicism over the bureaucratic red tape consistently negotiated by non-celebrity activists.
At just 74 minutes, the film hardly has time to follow either of these tonal impulses to especially complex ends: There’s a lot of plainly simplified science and reportage here, along with attractive National Geographic-style footage that rarely reaches for David Attenborough-level spectacle. Its brevity and digestibility make it well-suited to a VOD release via Amazon Prime, where it should cultivate a conscientious housebound audience; though it premiered quietly on the fall festival circuit last year, it is not a documentary that feels wedded to the big screen.
Using a mixture of newscast-style interviews and more fluid video-diary footage, “Sanctuary” covers a fraught year in the life of the Weddell Sea campaign, beginning with the attachment of Bardem — together with his brother Carlos, who also serves as the film’s producer and co-writer — to the cause in late 2017. He, and in turn we, are given a swift bullet-point education in a biodiverse landscape endangered by interconnected factors ranging from climate change to commercial fishing. Greenpeace launches a petition in favor of the proposed sanctuary, seeking 1.8 million signatures from the public; as Bardem lends it his promotional and social media clout, onscreen graphics track the surging tally over the months.
Though a collective of Greenpeace activists — notably Swedish project leader Frida Bengtsson — is afforded substantial screentime, the bulk of the film is understandably devoted to the Bardem brothers’ own Antarctic visit; “Sanctuary” duly adopts its star-narrator’s sweetly astonished, impassioned perspective as Fabio Nascimento’s camera luxuriantly gazes upon fuzzy flocks of penguins (Bardem’s favorite animal, we are told) and joins, in the film’s flashiest setpiece, a submarine cruise over the psychedelically populated ocean floor, as rich in translucent candy hues as the land above is pristinely diamond-white.
This kind of can’t-lose footage is money in Longoria’s pocket, contributing to a mid-film high that can’t help but be deflated by political obstacles far away from the icy southern deep. Followers of environmental news headlines will already know that the film’s narrative climax, where the sanctuary proposal goes before the multinational Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in late 2018, does not permit the euphoric happy ending that the filmmakers would have hoped for. Instead, “Sanctuary” ends on a solemn, bittersweet note, noting that environmental activism is a war in which more battles are lost than won: Advocates need to be in it for the long haul if they’re to see any glory. Here’s hoping Bardem is up for a sequel.