“The day I got here, I got lost.”
With his 1995 sophomore feature, Casa de Lava, Pedro Costa offers up far more questions than answers. Was the fall that put itinerant laborer Leão (Isaach de Bankolé) into a coma a workplace accident or a deep-seeded strategy? Who is it that calls him back to his Cape Verde home, sending an anonymous letter and check for his discharge? How is it that Lisbon nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) is assigned the task of accompanying his still-comatose body? And why, once they arrive, do the locals deny their knowledge of Leão and his condition, but somehow know all about Mariana?
A doctor in Lisbon says Leão had no ID and no friends or family. He didn’t talk much: “Seems he’s a sad fellow.” That’s entirely possible—comprehensive backstories remain elusive throughout Casa de Lava—but the notion of Leão as a detached loner certainly isn’t evident from the beginning of the film, where we see he and his construction crew coworkers cheerfully making their collective way to the job site. In any case, following the traumatic plummet, Mariana and Leão are directed to the volcanic island of Fogo, an impoverished region off the coast of northwest Africa. Upon their apparently unexpected arrival, temporarily abandoned in the barren wild, Mariana hangs Leão’s IV from a nearby tree and settles his stretcher in the dirt. It’s an early instance of the landscape’s inhospitable prominence and Mariana’s adaptive aptitude. She pleads with the locals, “He’s not my invention,” but they remain skeptical and disinterested. Nevertheless, her resilience and medical commitment yields an elliptical integration into the community, and an erratic introduction to other neighboring figures. There is an aging European woman named Edith (Édith Scob), who appears as out of place as Mariana, despite her longevity in the village; her lofty remove keeps her at bay, in contrast to Mariana’s willing assimilation. Then there is Bassoé (Raul Andrade), a violinist who may or may not be Leão’s father; interacting with Mariana, he’s comparatively more sympathetic than the other villagers, though his character remains just as abstruse.
Opening with archival footage of volcanic eruptions, it’s tempting to interpret this turbulent imagery as a thematic primer for Casa de Lava’s assorted conflicts to come. Literally translated as “house of lava” (yet inexplicably dubbed Down to Earth for its English release), the film’s prelude indicates peril and volatility, and when this explosive content is intercut with single-shot depictions of arbitrary people standing in subdued statuary poses, the incompatibility of a population amongst the combustible topography establishes just one of the film’s constant contrasts. This obvious symbolism seems a little too spot-on, considering how much else of the movie is triumphantly free from straightforward analysis, yet the suggestion is appropriate all the same. Still reeling from a cholera outbreak in the not-too-distant past (the village was a leper colony), and struggling under the enduring weight of post-colonial oppression and exploitation, this is a land of superstition and science, of the past and the present, and these oppositional tracks are repeatedly at odds; though she herself is innocent enough, it’s clear what side of this resistance Mariana represents, and her place is judged especially dubious when her associative discipline proves fallible.
Casa de Lava engages in a persistent process of flexible fusion and tugging defiance. The Fogo populace mills about with destitute complacency, as if they are waiting for something to begin, or something to end; they hang in some lingering limbo. There is an ambiguous impermanence, a restlessness—“Not even the dead rest here,” says one inhabitant—and there are equivocal allusions to the region’s controversial geopolitical past, its social, economic, and emotional desperation, and the analogous plight of migrants and slaves—many people leave, it is said, but few ever come back. Perhaps this is what Leão is deliberating in the shot just before he plunges to the ground; does he want a way home, becoming one of the few who return, or is he worse off as an immigrant drudge, and therefore seeks a (permanent) reprieve from the urban toil? Again, there are questions raised, with few answers to follow. Costa is never overly insistent on these sociopolitical ramifications, and without some provided secondary context, this serving of Portuguese history would remain decidedly oblique.
Essentially in a coma for the first half of the film, De Bankolé is obviously limited in his initial presentation (apparently, his unconscious state was to be extended even further, until De Bankolé objected and Costa adjusted the narrative, a tweaking that attests to the loose improvisatory nature of the film). However, when finally awoken—his first conscious words are, “My land”—his path back among the living becomes an uneasy, uncertain transition, fitting with Casa de Lava’s general ambivalence. De Bankolé’s performance captures a vacant, curious hesitance, concerning Leão’s survival, his homecoming, and his relationship with Mariana, who says she knows him backwards. Compared to De Bankolé, a well-known actor who has leveled art house appearances in films by Jim Jarmusch and Claire Denis with more commercial turns in Casino Royale (2006) and the upcoming Black Panther (2018), de Medeiros is a relatively unfamiliar face. Having starred in Costa’s 1989 debut, O Sangue, her heroine engagement here is compelling, but not because of the depth of her character (while we appreciate her professional devotion, we know as little about her as we do anyone else), but because of a shared puzzlement. The unreasonable resentment she occasionally faces puts us firmly in her corner as she seeks to overcome her outsider status. And as we are denied expository clues by Costa, much of what the Casa de Lava viewer assembles is dependent upon Mariana’s perception and her reaction.
The recently released Blu-ray of Casa de Lava, from Grasshopper Film, features a slideshow of Costa’s production notebook, an interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel (who shot Robert Bresson’s final film, 1983’s L’Argent, and would work again with Costa on 1997’s Ossos), and essays by Darlene J. Sadlier and Jonathan Rosenbaum. In Rosenbaum’s piece, he writes, “The cinema of Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw, human essences—souls, if you will.” As true in this film as it would be in Costa’s subsequent work, this abstract opacity must be dealt with and accepted early, as Casa de Lava moves along with overriding disorientation. Characters are impeded by a language barrier, their intentions and relations are unclear, and though it is stated that Leão was in a coma for two months, indeterminate amounts of time pass between scenes. There are jarring transitions (Mariana is nearly assaulted one night, only to be saved by a dog, which turns up dead the next day) and the precarious unraveling of the film’s many mysteries leave one feeling just like Mariana, like a stranger attempting to formulate a comprehensive local history in a matter of mere days.
What prevents this from becoming tediously frustrating is not only the expressive character essences, which Rosenbaum alludes to, but also Costa’s unique aesthetic. Thematically, in terms of its fundamental story (slack as it is), and in its striking visual juxtapositions, Casa de Lava thrives on a persistent disparity of textures, cultures, and personalities. Youth and old age, health and sickness, life and death: the film is at a continual impasse. The bare, impoverished village is a scenic intermediary between the comparatively active island cities and the remote outskirts defiled by volcanic rubble, while Mariana, as played by the petite, unblemished, and inherently vulnerable de Medeiros embodies a sensual counterpoint to the craggy terrain. She is beautiful and emotive, donning glossy lipstick and a flowing red dress and delicately exposing bare flesh; the land is rough and unforgiving, all stone and gravel, ashen and stark (and her whiteness against the region’s blackness obviously conveys an additional symbolic disharmony).
When Machuel discusses the film’s pace and rhythm, from one shot to the next, one scene to the next, he emphasizes Costa’s sensitive movement of camera and character, and the balance of dialogue and music. This coordination of tempo is vital to a film like this, with its overt ambiguity, but it’s even more necessary for Costa’s later work, longer features that are even less contingent on conventional narrative. In this way and others, Casa de Lava is seen as a foundational release, one that would lead Costa to Ossos, In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), his so-called “Fontaínhas Trilogy.” (Apparently, after shooting in Cape Verde concluded, Costa received letters from the citizenry, which they asked him to deliver to long-absent relatives working and residing in Portugal’s shantytown hamlet. That, in turn, resulted in his literal introduction to this fascinating, albeit despairing, environment.) Frequently compared to Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) or, as Rosenbaum also mentions, Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), the sources of Casa de Lava’s potential inspiration are ultimately less important than what it would itself inspire. It’s an excellent movie, as a singular achievement and as just the second feature in what would become Pedro Costa’s remarkable career.