Casa de Lava (literally, House of Lava), Pedro Costa’s second feature, is a moody, volatile examination of the legacy of colonialism and the European slave trade in Africa. It begins in eerie silence at night: a messy, phantasmagoric red glow appears in a wash of voluminous dark—a vacant landscape. Creeping in, daylight provides topographical context for what had been a mysterious, abstract image by revealing its phenomenal existence: that of an erupting volcano. The sound, lagging, is a displacement: fierce ocean waves battering the island of Cape Verde off the northeast African coast. The color red reappears, also displaced from the volcano: in the interior of a makeshift hospital coping with an outbreak of cholera; in garments worn by Mariana, a Portuguese nurse from Lisbon, who has accompanied home Leão, a black patient in a coma for months following a worksite construction tumble in Lisbon. When he awakes, Leão is angry to be back in Cape Verde; like most everyone else there, his wish has always been to leave for good. On the other hand, Mariana’s escape from urban modernity lulls her into a kind of coma. Like a party guest in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), she seems unable to leave. Perhaps the former leper colony gives her an historical depth of service to contribute.
Doubtless, this sounds mystical—as does the volcano’s red eye, or the image of a girl traveling on a white mule. Indeed, when doctor and nurse face one another from opposite sides of bedridden, comatose Leão, a blacked-out figure facing Leão looms in the foreground of the shot: his hovering spirit, poised to exit Cape Verde yet again, and finally, should he die. Leão doesn’t die—and, crippled, can only hobble about. “A slave,” we think.
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