“Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant”

I don’t know what to expect from an Oliveira movie. This one is only an hour long, but not because it’s in any great hurry to tell its story, a fairly simple one which moves at a leisurely pace. Definitely a well-made film, with a respectable look to it, not a work of madcap genius, not tired or haphazard. Mildly enjoyable throughout, then at the end I’m not sure what it all meant.
Adapted from a story by famous novelist Eça de Queirós but set in modern day, so there’s a scene at a literary society with a bust of the author among other displays of his work. Narrated by the lead character to a stranger on a train, played by Leonor Silveira, star of A Talking Picture.

Macario (Ricardo Trepa, the bartender who chats with Piccoli in Belle Toujours) is an accountant for his uncle, sees beautiful Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein of Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon) across the street and falls in love. Conspires to marry her, but his uncle will have none of it, so he sets out on his own, makes a small fortune working in Cape Verde then returns, only to lose it all by vouching for a friend who leaves town with another man’s wife. So he’s about to go back to Cape Verde but his uncle decides to take him back, says he can marry the girl. So they go out ring shopping, she is caught stealing a ring, he tells her to go away, roll credits. In an earlier scene, he lost a poker chip (during a poetry reading by Luis Miguel Cintra, who played the malignant uncle in Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, as himself) which rolled towards Luisa and disappeared, so he must realize she’s a habitual thief. Still, it’s an odd little story.

Trepa and Silveira:

J. Reichert

[The story] occupies the filmmaker’s by-now familiar nether-Lisbon, in which lives are lived simultaneously in 1609, 1909, and 2009. Oliveira’s a filmmaker at which the adjective urbane could be lobbed equally as praise or slight depending on your tolerance for his scarily coherent (especially of late) body of work. …If this tale weren’t so endearing and well told, it’d be more akin to one of those lengthy jokes told by aged uncles lacking in point or punchline.

Luis Miguel Cintra:

NY Times searches for clues:

As his story begins, the landscape outside the train window is snow covered; by the time it ends, it is green. Other tiny mysteries deepen the film’s enigmatic, gently surreal mood. … Macário encounters a strange, agitated man looking for his hat, left at the spot where Macário is standing. Periodically the movie returns to the same long shot of Lisbon but always filmed in a different light. At various points chimes ring from a tower whose clock has no hands. Everything is framed. Macário’s story is framed by the train trip. His dream girl, a full-lipped sensual beauty whose ash-blond hair tumbles over one eye, is glimpsed while standing at a window, seen through another window, waving a fringed Chinese fan. Even when she retreats behind a thin curtain, her silhouette is visible. Behind her is a framed portrait. Art not only seems to watch over life but to preserve it.

A blond-haired girl:

The DVD holds a press conference with the director and lead actors which is longer than the movie itself… might watch that another day.

Opens with low-light shots of lava. Close-ups of thickly eyebrowed women! From the start it’s cutting faster than O Sangue. The color isn’t as self-consciously gorgeous as the black-and-white in the other movie but we still get some heavy shot compositions and strange moments.

Construction worker Leao (the intimidating Isaach De Bankolé of Limits of Control) fell, putting himself in a 2-month coma. The hospital got an anonymous letter along with a check, so he is discharged to fly home to Cape Verde, joined by nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros of O Sangue). She stays a few days, is almost raped on the beach, saved by a dog.

Edith (Scob, of Summer Hours, Comedy of Innocence) is the local white woman and owner of the dog. Her son (Pedro Hestnes, star of O Sangue but unrecognizable to me) is confrontational to Mariana. A boy named Tano, possibly Mariana’s attacker, maybe kills the dog? Leao finally wakes up, his first words being “my land.” A grey-haired local guy named Bassoe plays the violin, as Mariana glows in the sunset, falling more in love with this island. But many scenes are in very low light, relationships and plot points are undefined, and the movie is becoming more oblique into the second half.

Connections! Edith’s friend says “juventude em marcha!” (the original title of Colossal Youth), and when Mariana asks Leo to “try to remember something,” his first word is “sangue.”

Tano is drunk? How old is he, anyway? Is Leao the son of the violinist? Didn’t Bassoe say he was going to Portugal – why is he still here? Why is Mariana? I started to find it all more annoyingly frustrating than deliciously mysterious, but apart from the plot I enjoyed the visual experience until the end.

Fred Patton: “An arsenal of symbolism, audio-visual disjunction, and insinuating edits work to paint a portrait of the social landscape.”

R. Brody: “a politically savvy homage to Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 horror film, I Walked with a Zombie, in which postcolonial decay is invested with both metaphysical and erotic allure.”

I’d heard about the Zombie connection, and so watched it a day earlier. I suppose Mariana/Ines is Nurse Betsy and Leao/Isaach is the zombie wife, but then neither of the two brothers exist, just their mother Edith Scob. The connection gives critics something to talk about, at least, but the director seems to have thought better of the idea.

from the marvellous Cinema Scope interview:

I had this idea—which was a stupid idea—of doing a remake of a film called I Walked With A Zombie by Jacques Tourneur, who made a lot of films here [in America] like Cat People, Anne of the Indies, Way of a Gaucho. He was a great artisan. I decided to make something around my memory of that film; a film that has zombies, volcanoes, ghosts, crazy women, dogs, various strange nights, a lot of confusion and mystery. You will see that it’s not at all like I Walked With A Zombie; it’s something else.

M. Guillen [note that the film’s English title was Down To Earth – and he disagrees with me over which Zombie character Edith Scob is performing]:

Scob accepted Costa’s strange invitation to reconfigure the role of Tourneur’s entranced Jessica; the lost, White woman under the spell of the island.

Costa cautions that Casa de Lava is a confusing film that leaves the viewer a bit lost. He attributes this to the fact that he himself started losing himself consciously during the shoot, sharing Mariana’s role in the narrative. The story revolves around the arrival of a young nurse on the island who has accompanied the comatose body of an injured laborer Leão. As Costa previously specified, the body of Leão supplies the “dead weight” that thematically runs throughout his films. Mariana’s inability to find anyone willing to claim the body creates the film’s texture of gravitas. The film’s narrative slows down for having no immediate resolution.

Describing [the island of Fogo, where this film was shot], Marker [in Sans Soleil] writes: “I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away.” This underscores Mariana’s own “alien” quality among the islanders. Perhaps, after all, there is some sense to the translation Down to Earth? As Daniel Kasman summizes: “Inês Medeiros’ existential experience on the island is the film’s primary grounding.”

Long Pauses:

Costa’s own description of Casa de Lava reads like a ghost story:

“In the beginning there is noise, desperation and abuse. Mariana wants to get out of hell. She reaches out her hand to a half dead man, Leao. It’s only natural, Mariana is full of life and thinks that maybe the two of them can escape from hell together. On the way, she believes that she is bringing the dead man to the world of the living. Seven days and nights later, she realises she was wrong. She brought a living man among the dead.”

Like a mash-up of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie and Claire Denis’s Chocolat, Casa de Lava concerns a young woman, Mariana (Ines de Medeiros), whose exotic notions about the Other are tested and refuted by first-hand experience.

Mariana can’t help but be seduced by the Otherness of Cape Verde. … The music is one more seducer that tricks Mariana into believing that she is the object of desire. It’s also one more language that she invariably misinterprets. Mariana only realizes her mistake — that she has “brought a living man among the dead” — in the film’s closing sequence. Appropriately, the final images in the film resist simple interpretation. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say only that Mariana witnesses two events that shatter the illusions that had sustained her during her week in Cape Verde: that she was a source of health and healing for the wounded people there, and that she held sexualized power over them. At her moment of awakening, Costa frames Mariana in a still close-up and, for only a few seconds, brings back the non-diegetic viola music. When the music ends, so does her story.

Pedro Hestnes at right:

Edith Scob at right:

J. Rosenbaum:

There are at least four other Andrades listed in the cast of Casa de Lava, all of them playing children of Bassoé [Raul Andrade] – one of many factors that suggests that the film, like all of Costa’s other films, is an intricate mixture of fact and fiction. Costa told Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (issue no. 22) that the film was originally scripted, but “at one point I just left the script behind, because I thought that if I’m going to try to shoot this girl in this new place that’s foreign and dangerous, then I have to shoot it from her point of view,” and “There was a lot of improvisation each day” – one indication among many that Mariana (Inês Medeiros), the lead character, largely functions as Costa’s surrogate in the film. Nearly all the ethical questions and ambiguities posed about her involvement with the islands’ residents are those raised by Costa’s involvement – that is to say, his filmmaking – as well. And improvisation is perhaps the most obvious way of raising the existential stakes of these issues. As Costa notes, he and Isaach De Bankolé even came to blows over the latter’s objections as a professional actor to his character Leao having to remain in a coma for most or all of the film. (It’s also my impression – gleaned from the account of a friend who attended Costa’s discussion of the film in Los Angeles – that Leao, like his rough counterpart in I Walked with a Zombie, never would have come out of his coma at all if it hadn’t been for Bankolé’s objections.)

Casa de Lava may be the film of Costa’s that poses the most constant and furious tug of war between Hollywood narrative and the nonnarrative portraiture of both places and people, staging an almost epic battle between the two. These warring modes become almost magically fused whenever there is a landscape shot with one or more human figures; every time this happens, the film moves into high gear. … Typically, … we’re either told too little about what’s happening in order to be able to follow the story or everything we could possibly want to know – in both cases in a rather mannerist fashion.

Much later in the film, the son (Pedro Hestnes) of a white islander, Edite (Edith Scob), gives a similarly telegraphic account of his mother, himself, and the allotment of funds, again to Mariana, over his father’s grave: “She came after him. She was 20 years old. She was half his age. I never met him. He was a political prisoner. Afterwards, she never went home. She’s been here for years with me. People help her. She likes them, they like her. We live here. Now we get a check every month, his pension, to pay everyone back. They know, they all wait. They all want to leave.”