Color, 1994, 105m.
Directed by Pedro Costa
Starring Inês Medeiros, Isaach De Bankolé, Edith Scob, Pedro Hestnes
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
A self-confessed homage to Jacques Tourneur's atmospheric classic I Walked with a Zombie (itself derived from Jane Eyre), Casa de Lava is the second feature film from director Pedro Costa, who had debuted with the impressive O Sangue and went on to the Criterion-released Ossos, Colossal Youth, and In Vanda's Room. There isn't any horror content here per se, but the influence of Tourneur makes it a fascinating exercise in cultural transplantation as well as a rewarding film in its own right.
On a volcano-studded Cape Verde island called Fogo, Portuguese nurse Mariana (Medeiros) arrives to transport a comatose patient, Leão (De Bankolé), a construction worker seriously in a fall. However, while money has been anonymously provided to bring Mariana to the region along with medical supplies to treat an incipient cholera outbreak, no one appears to be on hand to receive him. Her extended stay brings her in contact with a mysterious array of characters including the forlorn Edith (Eyes without a Face's Scob), who's stayed on to keep company with her son (the late Hestnes, star of O Sangue) long after relocating to be with her now-deceased lover. When Leão wakes up, he doesn't seem very pleased to be there, and as it turns out, Mariana's presence might be making things more dangerous for everyone.
Featuring a slippery narrative that often threatens to drift off into darkness, Casa de Lava was an ambitious and troubled production for Costa and his crew, evolving tortuously from a straight remake to the more enigmatic art film we have with us today. The social implications are key here as the tension between Westerners and the resentful citizens of the former slave colony seem to trapped in a vicious circle, with Mariana staying on far past the point of normal logic for reasons we can only guess (if indeed there are any at all). The location is the real star here, a unique and wounded place of music, poverty, color, and haunted faces.
Strangely retitled for some English markets as Down to Earth, Casa de Lava has been one of the more difficult films to see in Costa's filmography, with DVD releases in France and Japan offering options for those who even know enough about it to hunt it down. Second Run's UK release, sporting a perfect 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer newly supervised by Costa, should win over far more admirers thanks to its wider availability alone. The optional English subtitles are also newly translated, and along with some useful liner notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum (who goes into the Tourneur issue much more and draws some parallels to Stromboli), the disc includes some welcome video extras: an 18-minute video interview with Costa (shot at the Tate Modern) who talks about the script origins and the film's vital importance in his filmography, a music-accompanied 23-minute look at Costa's cultural scrapbook assembling during production, and a solid 7-minute video interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel, who had previously shot Robert Bresson's L'argent.