The real-life eruption of the Pico volcano in the island of Fogo and the outbreak of cholera in the Cape Verde Islands provide a dense and ingeniously metaphoric contemporary backdrop to Pedro Costa’s exposition on isolation, entrapment, moral inertia, and longing in Casa de Lava. 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, has continued to seep into the present day consciousness of the local population, and is reflected in an introductory montage of the ruggedly impassive residents – composed primarily of women – framed against the austere landscape in the early sequences of the film. The image of repressed violence surfacing through the juxtaposition of the ominous, fluorescent glow of slowly churning lava and the opaque gaze of the villagers is immediately repeated in two connecting episodes to otherwise seemingly unrelated scenes in the Portuguese city of Lisbon: first, in the shot of a somber Cape Verdean migrant worker Leão looking down from the framed opening of an unfinished building that cuts to the shot of the construction office where news of his “accident” sets the worksite into a chaotic scramble for help; the second, in the shot of hospital nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) curiously dowsing her face with a bracing quantity of isopropyl alcohol at the end of her exhausting shift at a coma ward where the gravely injured Leão has been admitted after slipping out of consciousness. A few months later, an anonymously written payment has been dispatched to the hospital in order to cover the cost of sending the still comatose Leão back to Cape Verde after he is inexplicably discharged, and Mariana agrees to accompany her patient as well as facilitate the transfer of medical supplies to the island hospital where an outbreak of cholera has reached epidemic proportions. But the circumstances of Leão’s homecoming prove to be even more complicated. Deposited at a desolate open field by a military transport plane en route to deliver military equipment to a distant war (with an equally nebulous arrangement for a scheduled return date), no one has arrived to welcome Leão home (except for an aging violinist who approaches the abandoned couple with the demeanor of a curious onlooker, but will not verify his actual relationship with the patient), and Mariana is compelled to bring Leão to the hospital for shelter, along with the medical staff’s far more anticipated delivery of medical supplies.
In hindsight, the absence of men in the establishing sequence of Cape Verdean villagers foretells the underlying reality of the elliptical, opening images, a sentiment articulated by the island doctor that soberingly echoes the haunted memory of the country’s slave trading past – that everyone leaves Cape Verde, but no one ever comes back. Indeed, inasmuch as impoverishment has upended the social fabric of the community as able-bodied men leave – and never return – in search of economic opportunity, it has also rended the very idea of family and sense of responsibility. Children are born out of wedlock and neglected by disconnected, self-absorbed, fractured families, emotionally abandoned like the domestic animals that roam the streets (the violinist boasts of 30 children, but cannot even remember the name of his first child), and flagrant transgressions are carried out against each other with virtual impunity from prosecution (a police officer is never seen, even after the theft of medicine in the hospital dispensary and Mariana’s attempted assault at the beach).
Within this environment of perpetual estrangement and isolation, Mariana’s arrival at Cape Verde can also be seen as an existential waystation between life and death, a recurring theme that is reflected in Edith’s (Edith Scob) perpetual mourning of her dead lover, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the village, and Leão’s reluctant (if not resentful) awakening from his coma – a state of waiting for inevitable passage that seemingly continues to fulfill a centuries-old predestiny that had been sealed with the settlement of the village on the abandoned ruins of a slave port and former leper colony. Visually, Costa reflects this sense of metaphysical transience through recurring murky, crepuscular, and eerily otherworldly images of volcanic activity, clandestine encounters, and waves violently crashing against the shore (most notably, during Mariana’s thwarted rape and in Edith’s subsequent tearful discovery of the brutally killed dog that had protected her).
Moreover, through the role of the French émigré and local benefactress Edith – a still grieving woman who once followed her politically exiled lover to Cape Verde and decided to remain on the islands with her aimless son (Pedro Hestnes) long after her lover’s death – Costa also confronts the issues of lawlessness and socio-economic stagnation that continue to plague many contemporary post-colonial African countries towards the end of the twentieth century. Doling out her lover’s pension to ungracious supplicants who swarm around her each month as she retrieves her checks from town in order to plead their case for a handout (not surprisingly, often for a one-way ticket out of the islands), their lopsided relationship is one of disempowerment and parasitic dependency (a sentiment that is also reflected through the villagers’ collective reference to Mariana as their savior when she first arrives to the island with a supply of vaccines to help stem the epidemic). Within this context of a culturally perpetuated neediness, Casa de Lava 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.
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