Juan Diego Perez, Entendre Films
Cancer victim Maria Garofalo is reflected in the stream behind her Ecuador home in the documentary "Crude."

CRUDE — ★★★ — Documentary feature about the so-called "Amazon Chernobyl" environmental disaster; with English subtitles (Spanish dialects); not rated, probable PG-13 (profanity, slurs, drugs); Tower Theatre

"Crude" unfolds like a pretty good legal thriller. Which, when you really think about it, is what this documentary feature is.

It's surprisingly tense and thrilling at times, just like those kinds of movies tend to be.

And yet, the film may frustrate a few viewers because it ends on a rather nebulous and inconclusive note. That's not because the filmmakers are manipulative — it's because the decades-long legal battle at the movie's core continues to rage on.

In "Crude," documentarian Joe Berlinger looks at an environmental disaster that's been referred to as the "Amazon Chernobyl" because of the huge number of people and large area that have been affected by it.

Since the late 1960s, oil companies have been exploring crude oil reserves in Ecuador and South America. Resulting petrochemical and other chemical spills have occurred in the Amazon and nearby tributaries.

(We're told that years of drilling and refining have polluted those waters worse than the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.)

A group of Ecuadoreans has been trying to get the responsible parties to pay for cleanup and for damages.

Originally they sought a settlement from Texaco and from the Ecuadorean government. But when Chevron merged with/acquired Texaco, the corporation inherited the suit.

One of the strongest and best segments is a mini-profile of Ecuadorean attorney Pablo Fajardo, who once worked in the oil fields and has undertaken the suit at great personal cost.

Like the actual victims, he's much more sympathetic than his American counterparts, who are seen coaching witnesses and crafting testimony. This comes across as crass and manipulative.

Yet the Chevron experts and even more strident attorneys come off far worse here. While this might seem unfair, Berlinger lets their words and their actions (as well as their personalities) condemn them.

"Crude" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for scattered strong profanity (including one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), derogatory language and slurs (some based on nationality and ethnic heritage), references to toxic chemicals and contaminants, and some disturbing imagery (photos of infirmities and deformations). Running time: 105 minutes.

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