Clarity and abstraction, recurring elements in the cinema of Portuguese writer-director Pedro Costa, dance an elegant pas de deux in Casa de Lava (1994), his second feature film following 1989’s O Sangue. Inês de Medeiros, female star of the latter film, here plays the young nurse Mariana, who travels with a comatose patient from Lisbon to Cape Verde – a bewitching archipelago recently blanketed by a cholera epidemic, leaving the streets fatigued and the people enervated. “We ought to die as children, and be born old” muses the old man Bassoé (Raul Andrade), but the people here seem to live in an odd state of purgatory, their age marked not by years, but stoicism, and how long they have hobbled the island’s scorched and brittle crust.
The film is a loose reworking of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), with Isaac De Bankolé as Leão echoing Darby Jones’ unforgettable role as Carrefour – the zombie guard of Edith Barrett’s voodoo priestess. Costa’s reshuffling of the narrative (as is revealed on the disc, the film originally contained ghosts and magic, and was imbued with a much greater surrealism) means that the mystery of Leão’s fate is strongly foregrounded, his spirit hanging over the island like a crepuscular sky. He is the comatose patient whom Mariana is returning to Cape Verde, where she believes his family and friends will be waiting. Perversely, she arrives to find that, nevermind expecting him, nobody even recognizes Leão, and the only bed he can claim lies in the decrepit shack of a hospital at the center of town.
Bankolé inhabits the role of Leão with an often suffocating intensity, his body haggard and his eyes, black as a raven’s coat, revealing nothing of a past. de Medeiros, her face a churning sandpit of emotion, perfectly captures the confusion of this almost mythic island, which has not yet birthed its own identity in the wake of colonization and dispossession. The natives are a people stuck between cultures and languages (barriers often arise in conversation as Creole and Portuguese brush and overlap), who know not even the image of their own children – Bassoé claims to have thirty, but cannot name one, and Doña Alina (Alina Montrond) counts twenty to her own. Through Mariana’s eyes we experience the tumult of this land, and Costa never breaks from her gaze. de Mederios’ dainty features, at once elegant and disturbed, are frequently captured in close-up, and prove more arresting than even the images of a landscape hungry to swallow her. The actress has one of the most compelling and beautiful faces in all of cinema – it’s often enough to just watch her in still tableau, thinking; communicating; breathing.
And what of the film’s Captain, Costa? His curiosity drives the story, which he claims was born out of “disgust” for himself and for filmmaking. Perhaps it was the turbulent political climate of his country, but something beckoned the director to Cape Verde, and in its terrain he found not answers, but even greater questions. His inquisition manifests itself through lyrical, rhythmically arranged images, so when the aesthetic is paused for discourse alone, the effect is uncannily jarring. Many conversations will take place in heavily punctuated verse, everyone following their own line of thought, and though dialogue rarely overlaps, it’s even rarer that characters will be on the same page. Consider the earliest conversation held between Mariana and Bassoé, when she enquires about the pale white lady gossiping with a group of local women. A violin rested in his hands, the man’s reply is quietly devastating. “A serenade, I’ve never sung.“
Cinematically, Casa de Lava provides the crossroads between Werner Herzog’s lyrical ethnograph La Soufrière (1977) and Ulrich Köhler’s stark, snakelike medical drama Sleeping Sickness (2011); another death-defying portrait of strangers forging and losing connections in a radical, long forsaken land. (Though, in his accompanying essay, ‘Eruptions And Disruptions In The House Of Lava‘, Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly cites Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s influence on the “brooding and toweringly heroic still-life’s” which echo throughout the film.)
The stillness of Costa’s camera illuminates the bruising realism of Cape Verde. Volcanoes thrust from soil like blistered thumbs; nature’s pyres forecasting ill and deathliness. The soil, so burnt that it cannot cry, crunches under the feet of lost souls wandering, searching for a home. A solitary graveyard lies on the outskirts of town, inviting the question: how alive are the living? Edith (Edith Scob), a French émigré, mourns her dead lover, but unknowingly has buried herself with him. Her house, the coffin. If Casa de Lava can claim anything, it can claim itself as one of the most profoundly sad films ever made, every shot echoing isolation, abandonment and confusion. It portrays a life fit only for the dead.
A HD restoration, supervised by Costa, means that Second Run’s release of Casa de Lava is the best on the marketplace. Shot on 35mm, the film here retains much of its organic, earthly grain; the image has age and texture, but boasts enough digital polish to ensure that backgrounds have depth, colours are enriched (there’s much more detail than in the previous Gemini Video edition) and the film’s formidable atmosphere – established by silent footage of the climaxing Pico de Fogo – is sustained throughout.
On the disc there’s an interview with Costa, filmed at London’s Tate Modern in October 2009, in which the director (whose elastic drawl evokes the finest villainous purr of Alan Rickman, albeit with a Portuguese lick) discusses the genesis of Casa de Lava, its relationship to Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie, and contextualizes it within the political climate of Portugal, 1994. Hearing him compare the production to that of Apocalypse Now made me long for a behind-the-scenes doc which, obviously and quite sadly, doesn’t exist, but perhaps it’s better to keep this hot, desperate production shrouded in mystery. Costa’s dry recount provides a sharp juxtaposition to that of DP Emmanuel Machuel, who talks excitedly of his experience scouting locations and shooting, allowing us an insight into the director’s working method (slow; methodical; actor-orientated). The disc’s final extra is a Casa de Lava Scrapbook, compiling the pages of a notebook Costa kept during shooting, set to original music by Raul Andrade. It’s captivating, and even at its bleakest, never less than beautiful. Some of the still photography (mostly portraits, some taken from other sources, but there are some fantastic landscapes too) will linger with me years to come, and they’re so clearly shot with the same eye that eventually moulded Casa de Lava.
As is customary for Second Run, this release also comes with an all-new essay, penned by Jonathan Rosenbaum, US Critic for the Chicago Reader and author of Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia and the BFI Classics edition on Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. His contribution is vital and poetic, discussing the film alongside the work of Straub-Hulliet (key influences, also) and delving deeper into the sort of theory which, in my opinion, Second Run would do well to indulge in more often. It’s a thoughtful piece from an experienced and worldly critic, lending context and imagination to an already fascinating work – in short, his declaration of Costa as a “master of portraiture” alongside Chaplin, Dreyer and Ozu makes this an essential package.