Casa de Lava Review
It's immediately worth noting that, despite his strong reputation with critics and around international film festivals, Pedro Costa has, to date, only made a quintet of fictional features. He's done a number of shorts and some documentary work, but his narrative films are limited to just the Fontainhas trilogy (of which one is actually sometimes mistaken for a documentary), Casa de Lava and his 1989 debut Blood (O Sangue). When Second Run DVD put out the latter of those in 2009, it was the first release of any of Costa's films on DVD in either the UK or stateside. The Criterion Collection has since issued a handsome set containing the Fontainhas trilogy and the Masters of Cinema Series also added the last of those films, Colossal Youth, to its lineup. Now the English-speaking world finally gets to view Casa de Lava, Costa's second effort, at its leisure. Second Run again comes to the rescue by putting out the film which serves as a rather perfect bridge between what can be seen as a comparatively traditional debut for Costa and the even more meditative, slower movies which have followed.
Casa de Lava finds Costa on the island of Fogo in Cape Verde, an independent nation off the coast of West Africa which was previously colonized by Portugal. Creole is the primary ethnic group as well as being a popular language in the country. Costa, a native of Lisbon, would have been a distinct outsider during filming. He reveals in the interview included on this disc that he spent three months becoming acclimated to Cape Verde prior to production. (Similarly, he familiarized himself with the Fontainhas area of Lisbon before making Ossos, a few years later.) The idea of Costa as a non-native carries over into the film, where Inês de Medeiros plays a nurse who travels from Lisbon with a comatose patient (played by Isaach De Bankolé) after he's released from a hospital in the city. De Medeiros' Mariana is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his essay found inside the Second Run booklet, something of a surrogate for Costa. Spiritually lost, she ventures to this potentially exotic place only to encounter uncertainty. There is no soothing of the soul waiting for her on the island. The people are somewhat distant and difficult to relate to given the vast societal differences.
Costa's narrative becomes characteristically deemphasized in favor of crafting a mood, or feeling, which tends to place the viewer alongside Mariana. This again supports the opinion that Costa is relating his own experiences in the form of his protagonist because of how melancholy and lyrically the film unfolds. It feels less like the recounting of a story than the exploration of a heretofore unknown foreign land, an attempt to decipher the unfamiliar. The island natives, including a key, mysterious figure played by Edith Scob, refuse to welcome Mariana in the film. She tries to obtain knowledge about her patient but it's largely to no avail. She's either ignored or consistently mislead. Spiritual cutaways make a point of showing the importance of landscape amid the individual's internal struggle. It would be understandable to attach some curse of existential longing at times to Mariana's situation.
The viewer never gets a concrete sense of why Mariana can spend this length of time away from her life in Lisbon. There's an implication, certainly, that things are unsettled back in the city, whether it's personal or professional. But specific answers remain elusive. Similarly, a mystery builds concerning her patient - an immigrant who had left the island for Lisbon only to now be returning more or less involuntarily. We know that he was discharged from the hospital per a woman's request but details are otherwise scant. If Costa tends to withhold the closure some might want then it could help to keep in mind how reductive he seems to consider the aspect of plot in his films. He's an illustrator of abstraction and not, ever, a storyteller. We might be able to recognize the poetic intentions in Costa's world but we shouldn't be expecting anything overtly literal.
It's in this vein which Casa de Lava acts as a remake - a not so strict homage - of sorts of the 1943 Jacques Tourneur-directed, Val Lewton-produced classic I Walked with a Zombie. Costa originally intended to do a closer redoing but ended up with something which only kind of follows the Tourneur picture. The idea of a nurse traveling to an exotic, unfamiliar land to care for a patient connects the two movies. The atmospherical similarities are, in some ways, present. Costa also makes sure to show a less literal version of a zombie which can, nonetheless, be seen as a mysterious, undead creature. What he does with Casa de Lava is actually an inspired re-imagining of the earlier picture, even if potential viewers might be better off largely forgetting the connection upon first entering Costa's film. Once realized, knowledge of the inspiration enriches it but the two works are different enough so as to resist corresponding recommendations. Costa occupies a mood he gleaned from Tourneur and really makes the resulting product his own.
As stated above, Casa de Lava makes its way to UK DVD courtesy of the wonderful Second Run. There have been multiple delays in getting this edition to the marketplace but any and all issues are now resolved. Meanwhile, it's still not available in R1. The dual-layered disc is region-free and PAL.
Utilizing a new high definition restoration, supervised by director Pedro Costa specifically for Second Run's release, this progressive transfer presents the film in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Colors appear quite good and natural, both in scenes lit by the sun and those which take place at night. A beautiful texture is retained in the image. There is no evidence of noticeable damage in the print. Nothing really would indicate that the movie should look any better given the apparent attention paid to this presentation. That said, detail is maybe not especially crisp by the usual standards. Otherwise, it looks impressive and should please those who've anxiously awaited the release.
Audio comes in the form of a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track which is primarily in Portuguese but also occasionally in the language of Kabuverdianu (which is Cape Verdean Creole). It's a clear, unencumbered listen and presents no issues. Dialogue emerges cleanly. Perhaps the highlight of the experience comes from hearing the very atmospheric sounds of the island, ably reproduced here. English subtitles have been provided. They are optional and white in color.
A significant collection of special features is included with the release. On the disc, Pedro Costa discusses his film in a recent interview (18:44) actually conducted by the folks at the Masters of Cinema Series. The piece finds Costa speaking deliberately about his experience on Casa de Lava and proves helpful in the ongoing quest to decipher the director and his work. Another interview (7:58), this one a bit shorter, lets cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel discuss some of the basics of his time on the picture. Finally, we have the unique extra of being able to explore Costa's scrapbook (23:42) from the production. It's presented as a slide show scored to ambient sounds and original music. This collection of photos and clippings is probably as instructive as anything else in trying to get some insight into his process. Stick around to the end of the piece to stare at completely blank pages before the scrapbook closes.
Not to be forgotten is the included twelve-page booklet containing an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. It's a new writing, albeit developed from a pair of separate articles which previously appeared in print. Costa can be a difficult filmmaker to appreciate merely through the written word so it's to Rosenbaum's credit that he's able to raise some interesting points here.