Do not be misled by the benign sounding name of this remarkable eco-documentary film. "The Cove" will take your breath away.

Do not be misled by the benign sounding name of this remarkable eco-documentary film. "The Cove" will take your breath away.

The film opens with a wide-angle shot of Taiji, a small, bucolic village on the coast of Japan. It's charming, white houses, red-tile roofs, gentle hillsides falling away to the ocean.

Paintings and statues of dolphins are ubiquitous, celebrating this lovely, sleek, intelligent animal are everywhere.

But, as "The Cove" soon discloses, the audience is about to journey down the rabbit hole, for all that appears welcoming and benign in Taiji is, indeed, something else. Beneath the patina of this quaint fishing village is an industry that is all but incomprehensible.

Each September, the fishermen of Taiji round up thousands of dolphins and herd them into the mouth of a cove where they are trapped by heavy nets. International representatives of seaquariums soon arrive to make selections for their marine parks and swim-with-the-dolphins programs. Each dolphin sells for $150,000 and is fated to spend the rest of its life in captivity, performing for the amusement of crowds around the world.

The issue of incarcerating these highly evolved animals in tanks and pools seems reprehensible when, according to wildlife biologists and large-animal veterinarians, their smiling faces (read by humans as contentment and friendliness) belie the stress that they experience in captivity.

The Flipper industry, however, is but the opening salvo in "The Cove"; what comes next in this taut film must be seen to be believed. Describing it here does not diminish its impact or meaning.

It is soon evident that of the some 20,000 dolphins rounded up, only a very few will be sold. The rest are moved into a second cove where men, standing on flat bottomed boats, systematically slaughter them, impaling each dolphins over and over again, using long metal-tipped poles, until the water of the cove, once a bluish green, turns a crimson red. Dolphins struggle for life, their tails beating the water as they try to escape, those mortally wounded simply slip away beneath the water.

The problem the filmmakers had was how to get the footage needed to graphically reveal the carnage that was taking place in the cove. Led by director and National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, the filmmakers devised a means to shoot the killing field undetected, since the cove is shielded behind high fences and concertina wire and trespassers are subject to immediate arrest if they breach the perimeter.

How Psihoyos and his team of deep divers and techies manage to penetrate the cove's tight security takes the film into the realm of a genuine thriller. The footage they capture is harrowing and irrefutable, despite the denials of the Japanese government, the local police, and the fishermen of Taiji, co-conspirators in the killing of some 23,000 dolphins each September.

The rationale offered up by the local fishermen for the slaughter of the remaining dolphins is that they will be butchered and the meat sold to the Japanese public (often labeled as high-priced whale meat) and used in schoolchildren's lunch programs. But as the film makes clear, this is an act of stunning avarice and immorality for it is known that the meat of dolphins is contaminated with extremely high levels of mercury, presenting a health risk to consumers.

"The Cove" is a superb example of the force and power that documentary filmmaking can exert when done well, and in this case, courageously.

Can the film be criticized for being agitprop? Perhaps. But it is a lame argument. "The Cove" is meant to inform and advocate and create a climate of change, specifically regarding the annual dolphin slaughter.

But it isn't a stretch to suggest that this film also is a powerful metaphor and a cautionary tale, for the truth is that it isn't just the Japanese who blatantly and with little forethought kill dolphins and hunt whales (under the ersatz banner of scientific research).

What "The Cove" reveals with a sad clarity is that our relationship to the Earth and its oceans is not evolving but devolving. We are pillaging the land for minerals and timber and coal and oil, clearing vast stretches of rainforests, while we degrade the oceans and harvest its fish to the point of collapse.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is but one example. Driven by insatiable markets for sushi and an unrestrained desire for maximum profits, research scientists estimate that in three years this enormous fish, some weighing more than half a ton and capable of swimming faster than a sports car, will be gone due to the unrestrained taking of spawning tuna (ages four and above) by massive Mediterranean fleets in the Straits of Gibralter.

According to a current study, published in the journal of Science, if current fishing trends continue, in 50 years there will be nothing left to fish. Stocks are collapsing at an accelerating rate, as is the loss of marine biodiversity.

We have gone through one-third of the oceans species and we are now exploiting the other two-thirds. Steve Palumbi, of Stanford University, predicts that unless fundamental changes take place in our relationship to the oceans and its ecosystems, "this century will be the last century of wild seafood."

The film does indict the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for its unwillingness to act boldly and courageously when it comes to the harvesting of whales and dolphins. Though dolphins and porpoises are part of the Cetaceus order, which includes whales, they are not protected by the IWC, and so that body, though informed of the annual kills in Taiji, has chosen not to act.

At a recent IWC, the Japanese argued that since some species of fish are disappearing, more whales should be taken for they are contributing to the decline.

"The Cove" is a remarkable film and a likely contender when awards are handed out. Its intention, clearly, is to stir audiences to action and heighten awareness. That is always a daunting task for any documentary, no matter how well-made.