In Lois Patiño’s Coast of Death, human figures appear as miniscule beings amid a much larger, often sublime landscape, as if to suggest that, during rampant geographical change and man-made catastrophe, the singular members of a community are reduced to nascent specks of inconsequential matter. Such is the effect Patiño structurally instills within static long takes of the coastal region of Galicia, almost entirely in extreme long shots, with figures moving so far in the distance as to barely appear human at all. Yet, Patiño perpetually relays human voices as if through voiceover, offering a collapse of space between human insight and cinematic perspective, and locating a bridge between the vastness of the region and the typically silenced voices within it. By relaying these sequences through dissonance rather than synthesis, Patiño implies a lurking, industrial presence that never fully forms within the film and isn’t given a face upon which to personify the buzzing of chainsaws, a blaze of tree branches, the wrath of bulldozers—all instances seen and heard throughout the film’s terse runtime.
By electing not to hinge a polemical rallying cry against the destruction of ecosystems to either a singular face, a corporation, or burgeoning facets of globalization, Patiño allows these implications to take much fuller shape within depictions of the land itself, most notably when human figures are so dominated by it. As two men fish just off the coast, they lament clueless politicians and share stories of shipwrecks around the eponymous region. At least, these disembodied voices would seem to be coming from the men barely seen from afar, although there’s no way to verify their speaking since Patiño never offers any clear sense of either man’s face. Indeed, given that the piece of land they’re fishing on is filled with enormous, cube-like rocks that stand over 10 times the height of both men, Patiño questions one’s orientation to the land and, more reflexively, preconceived notions of cinematic representation, in which human autonomy is assumed to supersede landscape. By contrasting these voices with later noises of machinery and industrial destruction, Coast of Death reveals its true interests lie in experimental methods of probing environmental ruin.
It convincingly insists that the human figure is no more vital to the image than the rapidly shifting landscape it inhabits.
Patiño further complicates matters by continually denying any narrative sense beyond the voiceover exchanges that speak on a range of topics about the region, including several mythological tales about the land’s spiritual potential. Much like its gestures toward environmentalism, the film avoids confronting religion in any explicit manner, but nonetheless offers a handful of scenes with church bells ringing and a striking street festival in which a shouting, ominous voice proclaims: “Galicia: Witch Land.” By evoking carnival, Patiño reveals these methods to be geared toward conflating history and myth, but also to deny evidentiary means for combatting either geographical or cultural destruction. Technology appears throughout in the form of bombs, bulldozers, and large cranes for moving wood, but these moments come and go, without verbal commentary of any sort. Yet, Patiño allows a smattering of detail-oriented objections, like when a local says in passing that “petrol killed everything,” making it clear that Coast of Death is engaged with far more than a transcendental suggestion of the region’s tranquility.
There’s violence throughout the film, but it’s a violence committed against natural structures rather than human beings. Whether it’s a set of bombs detonating to allow better opportunities for sawing down trees or horns blowing loudly at a local festival, there’s a head-butting of vernacular tradition and economy-based practice. When a lighthouse shines just off the coast near the film’s conclusion, the brief glimmer it emotes is treated no differently by Patiño than the mechanized infiltration of capital-driven employ for members of Galicia. Nor is a man placing flowers around the exterior of a church a moment for static contemplation any more than dozens of people, knee-deep in water, searching for kilos of carpet-shell. Coast of Death takes a genuine step toward constructing a posthuman aesthetics through its convincing insistence that the human figure is no more vital to the image than the rapidly shifting landscape it inhabits.