Mother Joan

A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The cinema of Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw, human essences - souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It's not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn't stories - though untold or partially told stories pervade all of Costa's features. It's fully realized moments, secular epiphanies.

Born in Lisbon in 1959, Costa grew up, by his own account, without much of a family. Speaking about Blood (O Sangue), his first feature, he admitted that there was a personal aspect in his concentration on the incomplete family in that film "because I never really had a family. My mother died early. Then I went to live with my father, who then went away. From the age of 14, I was alone..." Perhaps for this reason, family life - actual or simulated - is central to his work, just as untold or partially told stories hover over his secular, non-narrative epiphanies. And maybe the lack of fully articulated stories has something to do with the lack of fully articulated families. So one could say that the passionate struggle of outsiders to find and maintain makeshift families as well as workable narratives provides much of the meaning as well as the methodology of his work. It also surely accounts in part for the trancelike mantra, derived from a Robert Desnos poem, that recurs in his work, starting with Casa de Lava, as if it were trying to conjure up a spell: "I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes, a dozen fancy new dresses, a car, the little lava house you always dreamed of, and a 40 cent bouquet…"

Existentially speaking, if one combines this struggle with Costa's uncanny and always evolving talent for composition and colour, the overall aspiration resembles both what Godard has called "the definitive by chance" and the fusion of fiction and documentary sought and found by Kiarostami (especially in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us, whose plots also feature strained interactions between big-city protagonists and the impoverished yet exotic villagers they're visiting). It also suggests that Casa de Lava may be the film of Costa's that poses the most constant and furious tug of war in his oeuvre between Hollywood narrative and the portraiture of both places and people, staging an almost epic battle between the two. These warring modes become almost magically fused whenever there is a landscape shot with one or more human figures; every time this happens, the film moves into high gear. (In November 2008, in a park in Lisbon, I asked Costa at one point why he hadn't made any more landscape films. "It's too easy" he said.)

It was Casa de Lava, of course, shot in Cape Verde, that led Costa to Fontainhas, the focus of most of his subsequent features to date (first as a location and then, thanks to "urban renewal," as a bittersweet, nostalgic memory). As he said to Patrick McGavin in an interview, "Without Casa de Lava, there'd be no other films. It was the film that gave me the direction. They gave me the addresses and they just told me they'd never see me again. They'd say, 'Take this message to my mother. Take this package of tobacco to my father.' They are all immigrants in this place. That's how I found Fontainhas. You'd probably never go there. It's almost a destiny, the key to the other films."

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.

Disc Info

Larks Boxshot

Portugal, 1994
Length / Casa de Lava: 105 minutes
Length / Special features:
51 minutes
Sound: Original stereo
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 / 16:9 anamorphic
Language: Portuguese & Kabuverdianu
Subtitles: English (On/Off)
Region 0
RRP: £12.99
Release Date:24th Sept 2012 Second Run DVD 053


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