Casa de Lava (1994)


Second time with PC after Horse Money.

Tensions of emigration and isolation: powerful opening with almost documentary (no voiceover) footage of eruptions joined by shrill strings; cut to women’s windworn faces, blank stares suggesting deeply-set condition. Then emigrant workers in Portugal joking and community, but sickness at the heart with Leão’s blank stare. (recognise Isaach De Bankolé from Casino Royale) Cape Verde’s Conradian outpost.

Hermeneutics of illness: L’s black body examined under Portuguese gazes, visual dissection. Once arrived Mariana throws herself into diagnostics, travelling from door to door like a Dickensian philanthropist; the locals don’t want to know. (CdL‘s most striking sequence is a series of closeups of front doors with overlapping wails from pained infants, a very deft switch to psychological insight into M’s blocked urges) Soon she is reading the letters of her patients. (Persona consistently for me) The CV hospital has seen whole crowds of abandoned lepers; (it sits eerily empty now) the local doctor says “no one wants to remember.” The children’s contraction of the diseases against which M has vaccinated them is bold and shocking, critical and unresolved.

M, who vocally refuses to “pity” her patients, armed with a altruistic but naïve interpretation but the narrative begins to fray (“He’s not my invention!” when no-one wants to know”) and the uncanny, Strickland mystery of the island (the pilots retreating to the running helicopter with vague promises of a return [seems almost parodic]; that empty hospital; the reticent hostility of the locals) (this after the caustic New Wave opening scenes) becomes complex, more open but just as opaque. Fairly central is the murder of L’s dog Blackie which causes tension and prompts allegations; weird connection with Mr Pip, after which I expected CdL to run in parallel but the dynamics become more complex for us too.

Presentation becomes observation; explanation of the present gives way to excavation of the past. “Not even the dead can’t rest here.” (Lowry!) L’s lover, Edith’s deceased political prisoner husband. “You’re starting a new life,” says M to L; “This land fooled me.” The nurse calling Edith to the music, recounting snippets of forgotten political rebellion, “youth on the march!” – cut to local kids sneaking out to abduct L. Perceptive violinist tells M “your heart speaks with sadness”; thought of Josephine Carter’s ‘The Ethics Of The Melancholic Witness’: Sebald “represent[s] melancholia as a condition that constitutes the witness’ traumatized subjectivity as first and foremost an ethical response to other people” – trauma as buried but speaking past (L the testifying body, plenty of speaking wounds [eg. Tano’s dog bite that betrays his murder of Blackie])

(The plot is enigmatic and resistant; this is perceptive analysis, particularly regarding the dynamics of charity around Edith. For me the CV community is a broken one, the regular parties like those in Damnation that seem ironically fatalistic. The island has been wounded and there has been a regular flow of people in and out, distorting the balances of community such that we have some uncomfortable and suggestive confrontations: frequent language gaps; the players serenading Edith but spurning her son; Edith in particular consoling a reluctant Tina / bullied by local and Portuguese women / beseeched at the end for a grant to emigrate. Failures of (re)integration played out through such images – L onstage at the dance forgotten how to play violin, handing back to his father. M’s idea is to simply right the wrong of L’s emigration, (symbolic of diasporas through slavery or colonialism) reflected also in her over-simplistic though feminist empathy for Tina’s isolation after her male relatives have shipped out to Portugal. (she warns them they will simply end up in hospital like L) The difficulty of resolution is metonymised through L’s reawakening and lack of gratitude for her effort / difficulty of reintegrating. At the end the focus shifts to the younger generation, which cuts through the complex and unresolved (unresolvable?) peripheral narratives to dramatise a clearer failure of M’s altruistic diagnosis.)

M is repeatedly drawn to the mountain, (whenever she goes she instantly seems to be miles from town, like repeated trips to the end of Teorema) shots of it towering over her and others, parallax shots on cars where the foreground streams by and it sits impassive behind. Flopping around on the slopes fixes Stromboli overtones; this reads as an interesting riposte to Bergman’s internalisation of her circumstantial problem into a Romantic kenosis (here the strings are many and intertwined, the narrative switching focus capriciously and indiscriminately, sketches growing and vanishing)

Beautifully shot and elegantly edited: those crying doors; blocking and depth during the first party as M integrates with the locals; L dark at night on volcanic soil whispering first words “My land” cut to E pale asleep on white bedsheets.

Horse Money was more confrontative, both of its subject and of its audience; CdL is similarly alienating but more textured and unfolding. Need to return to both but need also to do more.