Credit: TIFF
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Casa de Lava | Pedro Costa

August 3, 2020

Pedro Costa has long been celebrated for his loose Fontainhas trilogy, a series of docu-fiction hybrids made in collaboration with residents of the former Lisbon slum (it’s now been demolished). These are great films, of course, but like all artists, Costa did not stumble into a particular method or mode of filmmaking overnight. His body of work is a series of both refinements and expansions, with Costa modulating and sharpening his aesthetic, moral, and political concerns from project to project. His second feature, Casa de Lava, is an important evolutionary step for the filmmaker. It is very much a purposeful rejoinder to his debut film, 1989’s O Sangue, which in many respects conforms to the familiar ethos of European arthouse filmmaking. O Sangue features beautiful, smokey, black and white photography, with long, languid tracking shots and carefully staged mise en scene. Casa de Lava, conversely, is in color, and is chock full of abrupt edits and montages of oblique portraiture. It gradually obfuscates, then abandons its narrative as it progresses, disrupting traditional cause-and-effect plotting. Certainly, Casa de Lava is still not yet a definitive break with the European art house tradition; there are professional actors mixed in with non-professionals, and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel (who would also shoot Costa’s next film, Ossos) worked previously with such luminaries as Maurice Pialat and Robert Bresson. It’s a beautiful film, to be sure, but a prickly, jagged kind of beauty. 

Costa has never been shy about his appreciation for both classic Hollywood films (particularly Jacques Tourneur and John Ford) and the films of avant garde modernists Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, whom he would document in his 2001 film Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?.  He has suggested in interviews that Casa de Lava is his ‘remake’ of Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie, also a film about a woman on an island dealing with mysteries beyond her understanding and the long legacy of colonialist oppression (Haiti in Tourneur’s film, Cape Verde in Costa’s). Here, the woman is Mariana (Ines Medeiros), a nurse who escorts a comatose man home to the island of Fogo. The man is Leao, played by Claire Denis regular Issach de Bankole, a construction worker who has fallen on the job and has no friends or family in Lisbon. There is, of course, an entire history of socio-economic concerns contextualizing the migration of poor, unskilled workers from Cape Verde to Lisbon, and while the particulars might escape viewers unfamiliar with this particular immigration pattern, it is not difficult to imagine a similar story taking place between Mexico and the United States. Certainly Mariana is a stranger in a strange land, unfamiliar with the island and its inhabitants, desperate to find someone to claim Leao’s body. As Mariana wanders the village she encounters a procession of people, each of whom offers their own unique story as to why they are there and why they may or may not want to leave. There’s Edite (played by the radiant French icon Edith Scob) and her son, never named in the film (played by Pedro Hestnes). There’s a young couple, Tina (Sandro do Canto Brandao) and her volatile beau Tano (Cristano Andrade Alves), who watch over the clinic where Leao lays motionless. There’s Bassoe, a local musician who has sired countless children and may or may not be Leao’s father. Costa makes intermittent stabs at coalescing a proper narrative around these characters: Tano attempts to assault Marianna; she in turn sleeps with Edite’s son before afterwards rebuffing him. All of this plays out under the spectre of a looming volcano at the center of the island, which Costa incorporates in grainy, high contrast stock footage. It’s reminiscent of Rossellini’s Stromboli, another film featuring a volcano as a kind of symbolic actualization of human volatility. 

As critic Jake Cole has observed, “Casa de Lava starts to express a conflict between his [Costa’s] fussy control and the uncontrollability of life.” He continues: ‘… the gently mounting sense of chaos in the film’s second half is as much a reflection of the director losing control of the community he came to shoot as it is his nurse doppelganger protagonist displaying a fundamental incompatibility with the residents.” Costa refuses to romanticize the island’s inhabitants, and ultimately cannot reconcile Marianna’s perspective with those of Leao. He illustrates this impasse with increasingly elliptical, fleeting moments of action, like the sudden death of Tano and Tina, presumably by way of tainted medication that Marianna brought with her to the island. Costa can’t seem to find a way forward here, artistically or otherwise; Casa de Lava captures a very transitional moment in the director’s evolution, one that both bears the death of narrative traditionalism in his films and anticipates the elliptical, sometimes oblique formulations of his Fontainhas trilogy. It is perhaps some kind of serendipity, then, that the shooting of Casa de Lava first brought Fontainhas to Costa’s attention. After the film was completed, the residents of Fogo gave Costa letters and gifts to take back with him to Lisbon to deliver to their friends and family living on the mainland. Upon delivering these items, Costa would meet Vanda, and then Ventura. The rest, as they say, is history, as Costa would radically overhaul his philosophy and methodology of filmmaking over the next decade. Cosmic fortuitousness aside, Casa de Lava  is not merely a footnote to the Fontainhas films, but an essential work in its own right.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.