Tuesday, March 11, 2008

PEDRO COSTA (and Others) on Casa de Lava and Tarrafal, Part One

The pairing of Pedro Costa's second feature Casa de Lava (1994) with one of his more recent shorts Tarrafal (2007)—Costa's contribution to the State of the World omnibus—was a deft stroke of curation; both films light a candle to the influential spirit of Jacques Tourneur.

Observing that connection, I will now divide my observations into two (perhaps even three) entries for purposes of discussion, commiserating with the exchange between Darren Hughes and David McDougall at Dave's site Chained to the Cinémathèque regarding the inadequacy of the short blog entry format to contain all that can and should be said about Costa's work. I will instead take Andy Rector's indispensable cue at Kino Slang and develop my thoughts over a series of angled entries.

Casa de Lava was the first (and only) film Costa made on the archipelago of Cape Verde—specifically the island of Fogo (which translated means "fire")—an island which is basically a big, dark, dormant volcano. One of the things Costa found beautiful about Fogo was that its inhabitants lived in the crater, some 500-600 meters high, and were mostly women; the men having left the island to pursue work in Portugal or Boston. He commented that there is a sizeable Cape Verdean community in Brooklyn.

Casa de Lava is a film Costa made quite a while back at a time when he was not feeling good about living in Lisbon, let alone Portugal. He was "probably" not feeling very well with himself, and had this idea of going away to, perhaps, relax. Mark Peranson's Cinema Scope interview details more fully the sources of Costa's discontent and how it led to his assignment on Fogo, where he found that these people and this place mysteriously and sensitively restored him to many things he believed missing from his country and his people. It was upon completion of Casa de Lava that he was given letters and gifts to deliver to relatives and friends in Fontainhas, which proved key to his future projects.

"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."

It was also at a time when Costa still had the opportunity and the desire to work with professional actors. Though none of them were "stars" per se, they had reputable careers. He cast a well-known Black actor Isaach De Bankolé in the role of Leão. Bankolé had gained some notoriety in Clair Denis' Chocolat (1988). In retrospect, Costa admits that it was not entirely fair of him to say to an actor, "In this film, there's a part for you" without mentioning that through most of the film the part required Bankolé to be an immobile, non-speaking zombie. By film's end the tension between them erupted, the two got into a fist fight, and Costa landed in the hospital "because [Bankolé's] a big guy." Isaach De Bankolé has since gone on to star in a couple of Jim Jarmusch films (Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes), Lars von Trier's Mandalay, Michael Mann's Miami Vice, the Casino Royale remake, and the TV series 24.

Costa's friends, the two young Portuguese actors from O Sangue—Inês de Medeiros and Pedro Hestnes—carried over into Casa de Lava; she as the female protagonist Mariana and he as the ineffectual son of Edite, played by French actress Édith Scob. Known for her role in Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face, 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. One of Costa's fondest memories remains working with Édith Scob, who he admittedly adores. Scob was wonderful to him, helping him through the tough shoot. "We had nothing. We had no lights. We had no energy. We had no trucks. It was like a mini-Apocalypse Now for me. [It was] too much for us."

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.

Casa de Lava is likewise confusing for being a story about not understanding language; Mariana—who speaks Portuguese—is unfamiliar with Creole. She finds Fogo and its inhabitants mysterious. Edite's behavior—like many of the islanders—borders on the delirious and that delirium permeates the narrative, which (in turn) informed Costa's own experience of the island. He recalled that he began acting irrationally, purposely getting lost every day, changing things in the film immediately after shooting scenes and not following through with what the script called for. His production assistants warned him that his changes were jeopardizing the project and placing them all in danger. He began receiving daily frantic phone calls from his producer Paulo Branco who Quintín writes ended up likewise getting into a fist fight with Costas (Cinema Scope, Winter 2006, Issue 25).

By the middle of the film Costa already felt that—instead of achieving the film's narrative trajectory on a tight production schedule—he wanted to be creating the film with the people in the village. He wanted to rob the 35mm camera, the sound engineer, Édith Scob, Inês de Medeiros and Pedro Hestnes and go off and create an eternal film that would never end. Eventually, he was to approximate this dream in his collaborations with the Cape Verdean residents of Fontainhas and Casal Boba. As Quintín explained, Costa was not just trying to capture the passage of time; he was striving to suppress it.
On the Serenity of Nature, the Confusion of Humanity,
and the Poetic Grasp of Robert Desnos and Chris Marker
Casa de Lava is singularly unique among Costa's oeuvre for being filmed on location in Fogo, Cape Verde, an island of stark, volcanic beauty. Its barren austerity achieves an otherworldly serenity. It's no wonder that its name was equally ascribed to a Martian crater. This otherworldliness belies the film's somehow woefully inaccurate translation as Down to Earth. A better translation might have been Far From Earth.

By contrast to the island's nearly inhuman serenity, Mariana's presence signifies confusion, not only in the language (she speaks Portuguese; the villagers speak Creole), but in the clash of historical memories, haunted by the island's dead dancing around the living, which in turn generates a confusion of identities. Who belongs to the living? Who belongs to the dead? Who belongs to who? Who is Leão's father? Is Alina really Leão's mother? Is Mariana's desire meant to be embraced by Leão? Skirting miscegenation, should it be more appropriately embraced by Edite's son? By contrast to all this potential complexity, the island remains amazingly simple. Costa would love to return to the archipelago to film in his patient style, within his limited and "luxurious" means (little money, lots of time), and with smaller cameras.

He is fascinated with Fogo being a woman's territory. All the men you see in the film are weak, or compromised by vice, or delirious and violent. They are the men who stayed behind while the strong ones moved away in search of work. The women, abandoned, mine their strength in stoic survival and an igneatic loneliness. As in his other films, letters are written home for the first month, the first year, but by the second year they slowly dwindle away into diasporic silence and insurmountable distance: a manifesto of displacement and loss.

Is it any wonder that Costa has incorporated a poem to represent this fading communiqué? Casa de Lava is where we first hear Costa's adaptation of the poem by Robert Desnos that Ventura shifted to incantatory heights in Colossal Youth. Costa can't explain (nor should he) how this poem became the manifesto in his films but it can be identified as "Letter to Youki", the letter/poem Desnos wrote for his wife Youki while interred at the Terezín concentration camp (where he eventually succumbed to typhoid). The alignment between the Nazi concentration camps and the Lisbon slums is sharp and fierce. Exile, Costa is telling is, is commensurate to imprisonment.

Once the letters stop coming, the women stand like sentinels or guardians facing the sea. Costa remembered that in Chris Marker's own epistolary reverie Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983)—which included footage shot on Fogo with (in fact) one of the mothers of the youngest girls in Casa de Lava—Marker captured a small moment whereby through voiceover he describes the Cape Verdeans: "A people of nothing, a people of emptiness, a vertical people."

Filming in Fogo was hard. Sometimes it was so cold at night that the camera wouldn't work. Everything was made of lava, dark, black, sterile. The only work available to the islanders is to construct roads out of cobbled lava rock. They have spent years and years building a road leading to the lip of the crater. When Costa was last there, the road was only halfway constructed.

Then, again, there are the titular houses made of lava. "I don't know if you can feel it," Costa muses, "but they have something to do with coffins. This form. They're so black." The Cape Verdeans don't stay in them. They constantly move in and out of them because during the day they are too hot. At night, as you see in the film, the women sleep on the cold floor at the open door to catch a stray breeze. So, yes, the nature is beautiful and serene; but, it is also violent.

Although Costa only briefly quoted Chris Marker—and inexactly at that—I found Marker's text for Sans Soleil on line to nail his quote. Marker's Sans Soleil text is an evocative document, which encourages me to see the film, and it contains further descriptions which could easily be applied to Casa de Lava.

Describing Fogo, Marker 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."

With regard to the distance between the women abandoned by their men: "Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound ... disembodied." There is a palpable sense of disembodied desire within the characters of Casa de Lava, desperately longing for physical grounding. It's as if this misplaced, unmoored desire is the zombie trance; the hungry gaze of the dead towards the living or—perhaps more accurately—the hungry gaze of the living towards the dead. Or even more accurately, a restless misunderstanding on both sides of the divide. As Costa himself describes the film, Mariana "believes that she is bringing the dead man to the world of the living. Seven days and nights later, she realizes she was wrong. She brought a living man among the dead." A curious number, seven. It is a horizontal orientation; the station when the sun falls below the Earth; monomythic elements abound.

As a further aside, I note that Leão has suffered a fall, the cause of his coma, much like Lento in Colossal Youth has likewise suffered a fall, though his kills him. Though Costa would be the first to protest ready equations, I believe his use of the fall of a laborer in foreign employment is a configuration of the wound referenced by Marker; a wound that Darren Hughes at Long Pauses identifies as the central conflict in Costa's films: "the perilous relationship between colonizer and colonized and the complex history (economic, political, cultural, and familial) they continue to share."

Marker asks: "Is it a property of islands to make their women into the guardians of their memory?" One instantly visualizes Costa's women staring out to sea. Marker comments further: "All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men's task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible. African men are just as good at this task as others. But after a close look at African women I wouldn't necessarily bet on the men."

Within the grip of the epistolary format, Marker salutes "the spirits of unmailed letters", which one could say Costa keenly addresses in his films as well, particularly Casa de Lava and Colossal Youth.

Marker also writes of "mediating animals", which reminded me of the role of the black dog in Casa de Lava; a dog which not only saves Mariana's life when she is being accosted on the beach, but which dies in the arms of a forlorn Edite collapsed on the black sand. Mythologically, throughout the world, dogs are intimately connected with passage into nether regions. They represent an emotional loyalty and—within the mythic gravity of Costa's work—the image holds steadfast and true.
A Critical Overview of Casa de Lava
My favorite write-up on Casa de Lava remains Darren Hughes' poetic essay at Long Pauses. Beginning by taking note of the film's opening "barrage of arresting juxtapositions", Darren then detects Costa's admittedly confused status as an outsider through his employment of a "complex and counter-rhythmic" musical intervention: Paul Hindemith's viola sonata, whose "atonal bursts of dissonance disturb the beauty of the nature sequence." Incidentally, Hughes also has an insightful write-up on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil.

With comparable poetic (though visual) acuity, Pacze Moj delivers a stunning screenshot gallery for Critical Culture. Articulating the tension between civilization and nature, Portugal and Fogo, he writes: "In Portugal, mountains make way for buildings. Excavate, and reveal an apartment building. The man-made precedes the natural. …In Portugal, man has tamed nature; in Cape Verde, nature is slowly taming man. The process of excavation is being reversed." Foreign labor, construction work in Lisbon, lends itself to an interpretation as a fall from Paradise. This plays into the earlier thread of the wound-like nature of falls at construction sites.

At Strictly Film School, Acquarello captures the haunting historicity of the island: "Once an uninhabited Portuguese colony situated off the coast of northwest Africa, Cape Verde's geographic location was ideally suited to serve as a logistics center for merchant ships traveling westward to America for the slave trade. In Costa's cinema, this complex history of the islands as a place of involuntary settlement and captivity, as well a waystation for people embarking on journeys into distant lands never to return again…."

"Casa de Lava," Acquarello concludes, "becomes a trenchant reflection of the broader geopolitical issue of continued post-colonial economic dependence endemic within many third world nations—a situation that is exacerbated by an intrinsic dependency on foreign aid and external charity, coupled with a systematic exodus of the very population who can provide the appropriate skills, innovation, and resources necessary to frame the structure for a self-sustaining economy and provide the social stability to—if not transform—their increasingly fragmented, isolated, and dispossessed communities."

By contrast, David Kehr complains that in Casa de Lava "few ideas emerge apart from some familiar post-colonial editorializing." His anemic point of view lends indirect support to Pacze Moj's richer perspective: "[O]ne of the film's themes could be expressed as the difference between seeing and understanding."


celinejulie said...

This post is great. I just watched CASA DE LAVA and don’t understand it at all, especially what happens during the last 10 minutes of the film. So I read your post and other things that you link to, and I find them very helpful.

I especially like this sentence in your post

--“Costa cautions that Casa de Lava is a confusing film that leaves the viewer a bit lost.”—

I totally agree with it. I guess my confusion after seeing this film results partly from the fact that I watch it on a small screen, and it may also result from the use of ellipsis in its storytelling, which reminds me of such films as AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. I hope I can understand this film better if I re-watch it, or if I find any writings about the last part of the film.

Michael Guillen said...

Celinejulie, thanks for stopping by to comment. I always appreciate your thoughtful reactions. Thank you. I'm glad that this entry in any way helps you get a handle on your own experience of this admittedly difficult film. I am still working with it, in fact. I have Marker's Sans Soleil in queue to watch. Along with Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie and The Wide Sargasso Sea, Casa de Lava weaves an anticolonial statement.