DVD. Second Run.
Costa’s second feature film comes to DVD is a lovingly restored
version and with quite a reputation. Perhaps inevitably, the film
doesn’t quite live up to the critical praise it has received,
though it remains a fascinating, beautiful and often frustrating
exploration of life and death.
Based very loosely on Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked
with a Zombie (taking a very basic plot line and a lot
of atmospherics from that film), Casa de Lava
follows Portuguese nurse Mariana (Ines de Medeiros) as she takes
comatose construction worker Leao (Isaach De Bankole) back to
his Cape Verde island home. This is a Spartan volcanic island
with few signs of the modern world visible, and it is a dying
place – somewhere that people leave and never return to
unless they too are ‘dead’ (as Leao is frequently
referred to as being). Mariana however begins to find a new life
on the island – a life that she was not living in Lisbon.
As she looks after her ‘patient’ (who seemingly is
in no hurry to recover from his ‘illness’) and tries
to find anyone who might know him, she also explores the life
of the local community, never quite fitting in (she continually
has to ask the Creole speaking locals to speak in Portuguese)
and finding that she is always part of ‘the other’
as far as the islanders are concerned.
This is a meandering, deliberately ambiguous and sometimes irritating
story, with half-built relationships that never go anywhere, glimpses
of lives lived that we never get to explore and little explanation
of events (the planned supernatural elements of the film were
dropped during production, and their absence is a shame - it might
have offered a little more substance to the ambiguity). It’s
certainly not a film for viewers who want things spelled out and
well paced. However, it’s also a film of startling visuals
– the composition of the shots emphasising an epic landscape
that has a strange beauty even in its bleakness, while the interiors
are cold and dying (funnily enough, the hospital scenes have an
uncanny resemblance to another zombie film, Lucio Fulci’s
Zombie Flesh Eaters, with the bleak room, basic
beds and suggestion that no one who comes here actually gets any
better). And the slow assimilation of Mariana into this bleak,
unhappy world (moments of escapist joy, such as music, seem frowned
on and desperate) is strangely compelling.
Cinema sometimes should be hard work – not all stories,
not all visual representations are suited to easy consumption.
Casa de Lava certainly is not easy viewing, and
if I’m to be honest, feels a lot longer than its 105 minutes.
But there is much here to savour and plenty to explore, should
you be willing to go there. With a 12-page booklet and interesting
extras (including a scrapbook of text and images collected by
Costa while he worked on and developed the film), it’s a
worthy pick-up for any film fan looking for a challenge.
IT NOW (UK)