It’s the Earth Not the Moon opens with a promise of exhaustiveness: Approaching Europe’s western-most island, Corvo, by bobbing boat, filmmaker Gonçalo Tocha verbally challenges himself to catalogue every person, every rock, every tree, and every animal. (Corvo has a population of less than 500, so this is perhaps not as grandiose as it sounds.) The film, which runs just over three hours, appears to satisfy that goal, though the island’s mystic, bushy terrain may still house un-captured secrets, and Tocha validates his mission aesthetically with a bounty of mind-pinching images, most of which observe where Corvo’s traditions end and the intrusion of modern development begins. (The most heavily developed area, as seen by helicopter, is a geometrically uncertain spray of baked earth-red and bone white; it looks artificially rustic, like Francis Ford Coppola’s winery estate.) The boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio and handheld camerawork furthermore force us to absorb one object—a freshly knit beanie, a tubular root being peeled—and one person at a time. As a result, the rampant testimony detailing quotidian goings-on, future plans, and recurring dreams never fades into the picturesque landscape.
Tocha sustains this human piquancy for the first 30 minutes or so, which move us briskly through three or four neatly organized chapters. After this, his anthropological proposition slides into dubiousness. We’re made into gawky tourists when observing Corvo’s unique activities (cattle hoisting), and when the island’s residents are at their most universally charming (they, too, suffer from political dualism and karaoke bars), they become banal. The hulking length of the project, which inevitably leads to redundancy, may be partially to blame, but the blatantly transparent style of documentation becomes equally suspicious.
Tocha’s not afraid of letting his boom mic wander into a few shots, and he speaks with his subjects about the film he’s making on several occasions. Such dogged integrity, when it doesn’t feel like reaction-formation, impresses the personal nature of the project to the extent that It’s the Earth Not the Moon inverts and becomes a film about its own production. And after the third or so talking head nods into the camera, it’s clear that Corvo’s people are performing for both the director and us—in which case, they might have eschewed realism more artfully and worked with Tocha to better dramatize their daily grind (cf. the equally patient but boldly fictive Alamar). What Corvo needs isn’t a documentary portrait made by curious outsiders, but a digital film school, even if its student body consists of a scant five or six. What strange cinematic missives would this enclave at the world’s edge issue, if given the chance?