Pedro Costa’s 1994 film Casa de Lava marked an immediate shift in style and approach from his debut, O Sangue. Where its 1989 predecessor was an exactingly detailed work made with rigidly controlled artificial lighting and interior sets, Casa de Lava heads out to the harsh, volcanic terrain of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of West Africa that was a staging post in the slave trade and exists even in independence as a source of underpaid, easily exploited labor. The lingering aftershocks of Portuguese colonialism are evident from the opening scene, set in a construction site in Lisbon, where one worker, Leão (Isaach De Bankolé), drifts off to the edge of a pit with a blank expression on his face. As he stands on the precipice of a skeletal building frame, the image cuts away, returning to the worker only after he’s fallen (or leaped) into the pit and lies comatose in a hospital.
Still unconscious, Leão is deported back to Cape Verde, dropped outside his hometown of Fogo. In tow is Mariana (Inês de Medeiros), a nurse who helplessly holds his IV bag as the plane that takes them to the island all but dumps the man’s stretcher onto a tarmac. Stranded on Cape Verde, Mariana becomes the film’s protagonist, navigating among the locals as she seeks to learn more about Leão, only to be met with silence and resistance at almost every turn. Indebted to I Walked with a Zombie, the film updates Jacques Tourneur’s postcolonial inquiries by framing them within a more socially contemporary form. Though Leão suggests a zombie in his catatonic state, for the most part Costa leans less on the eerie, supernatural vibe of Tourneur’s film for the more realistic silence of a close-knit community reacting against both an outsider and their own shared, barely restrained trauma.
Throughout Casa de Lava, the locals mill listlessly about Cape Verde, torn as they are between having no work at home and having to leave for Portugal to accept only underpaid, unsafe employment. At times it’s difficult to tell whether no one tells Mariana more about Leão out of their mistrust for her or simply because they’re so depleted by circumstance as to be unable to muster the energy to even speak to her. Apart from a few tracking shots of characters walking down Fogo’s streets, the film mostly consists of static, carefully composed images that use naturalistic lighting and location shooting with painterly precision. Mariana’s red dress is a rupture of color against the black soil of the volcanic landscape, her mere presence on the island rendered as an abnormality. Costa films humble, spartan domestic spaces as still lifes, most especially a worn dinner table (shades of John Ford) that functions as the locus of comfort and drama within a home.
Above all, though, it’s Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Brechtian deconstructions of both history and classic cinema that most inform Casa de Lava. A cornerstone of Straub-Huillet’s canon is the use of real landscapes shot in the present to evoke bloody histories of exploitation and conquest, and Costa uses the dark, bleak terrain of Cape Verde to suggest a long history of subjugation. The filmmaker is still finding his footing here, which may explain why he leans on the perspective of the Portuguese outsider, or that of Mariana’s aged foil, Edith (Édith Scob), a European woman who didn’t so much integrate into Cape Verde life so much as she became numb to her culture shock. Costa would gradually fine-tune his approach over his next few features, moving not only from formal 35mm compositions to the more abstract possibilities of video, but also from a white European point of view to that of Cape Verdean immigrants who fill his Fontainhas-set films. Even here, however, Costa’s gifts and ambition can be plainly seen, and the film’s enduring hypnotic power makes it a crucial entry in his filmography.
Grasshopper Film's 2K restoration reveals previously unseen nuances to the cinematography's handling of both the black volcanic soil of Cape Verde and the characters' various skin tones. Other colors, like the red of Mariana's dress and the worn Westernized clothing of the Cape Verdeans, pop with new intensity, stressing how much Mariana, and perhaps any human being, appears like an aberration next to the barren, craggy earth of the island. The mono track contains no discernible errors or hiss, and it mostly captures the ambient sounds of Cape Verde and Fogo's street noise with clarity and depth.
A slideshow of Costa’s production notebook, containing reference photos, sketches, and untranslated notes, is included on the disc, as is an in-depth conversation with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel, who recounts how he only formally met Costa upon arriving in Cape Verde and the conditions the crew worked under. A booklet contains essays by Darlene J. Sadlier, a professor of Portuguese who details the film’s depiction of diaspora and postcolonialism, and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who situates the film’s handling of racial and immigration history amid a broader discussion of Costa’s indebtedness and reconfiguration of his cinematic heroes.
Casa de Lava marked the moment that Pedro Costa emerged as a world-class filmmaker, laying down aesthetic and thematic cornerstones that he would revisit and revise over the course of his career. Grasshopper Film's shimmering 2K restoration is a revelatory treatment of this great film.