Loosely based on Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Pedro Costa’s 1994 effort Casa de Lava (oddly titled Down To Earth for its US release) is undoubtedly a demanding film – but then Costa’s cinema has always been a challenge. What the Portuguese director demands of his audience he richly pays back, with features that stay with you long after watching them.
Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) is a lonely and depressed nurse living in Lisbon. Tired of her daily drudgery, she leaps at the opportunity of transporting a still comatose patient, Leão (Isaach De Bankolé), back to his home on the bleak island of Cape Verde. Once there, Mariana is shocked to discover that no one is willing to claim Leão, so she waits patiently. Leão becomes an anchor by which Mariana clings to life, a notably ironic situation considering his state. Increasingly desperate to discover why the islanders refuse to acknowledge Leão’s presence, Mariana engages with a host of locals who draw her into the mysterious and otherworldly community of the island.
In the past, Costa has been compared to Beckett for his exploration of loneliness and emptiness, and this comparison could not be more appropriate than with Casa de Lava. The haunting, barren landscape of the village community sits at the foot of the isolated peak of Cape Verde’s Fogo. The island’s largest volcano looms as a brooding, threatening presence, a powerful visual metaphor for the emotional atmosphere of the island. There is something brooding under the surface, trapped and dangerous.
The menagerie of puzzling, otherworldly characters that Mariana engages with range from a violinist with twenty sons to a woman still trapped by grief for her dead husband, and of course there is the zombie-like Leão himself. Each has a hidden past, an emotional repression, and they spend their days wandering aimlessly in a shade-like existence somewhere between life and death. The island itself is a place where people are trapped in an emotional nullity, both drawn to the island and appalled by it. Yet despite a seemingly spiritualistic tone, Casa de Lava is nevertheless very much grounded in reality.
The ethereal quality of the film grips, even when little is really happening, and as the quiet plot unfolds we are drawn deeper into the mystery of the tale. Elusive, melancholic and stunningly executed, Casa de Lava is a tale with a truly unearthly quality, rooted in the reality and despair of the existential crisis. Without a doubt, Costa is one of the most interesting directors working in Portugal today.