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CASA DE LAVA (aka: DOWN TO EARTH)(director/writer: Pedro Costa; cinematographer: Emmanuel Machuel ; editor: Dominique Auvray; music: Raul Andrade; cast: Inês de Medeiros (Mariana), Isaach De Bankolé (Leão), Edith Scob (Edite), Pedro Hestnes (Edite’s Son), Raul Andrade (Bassoé), Alina Montrond (Alina), Cristiano Andrade Alves (Tano); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paulo Branco; Gemini Video Editions; 1994-Portugal/France/Germany-in Portuguese and Creole with English subtitles)
Minimalist drama is foreboding, incoherent and esoteric.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Shot in Cape Verde. Writer-director Pedro Costa’s (“Memories”/”Bones”/”The Blood”) minimalist drama is foreboding, incoherent and esoteric. It’s about isolation and inertia in a former leper colony on the remote island of Cape Verde, located off the coast of northwest Africa. The volcanic island was once part of the slave trade, and in modern times serves as a waystation to go to Europe and a place that depends on foreign aid for its survival. It seems everyone leaves the island looking for better economic opportunities and no one returns, leaving everything feeling hopelessly transient.

Portuguese nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) volunteers to travel with a military transport plane from Lisbon to the volcanic island of Cape Verde, where an outbreak of cholera has reached the epidemic stage, with her construction worker patient Leão (Isaach De Bankolé) who fell at the work-site and for the last two months has been in a coma. Someone from Leão’s hometown has mysteriously sent payment to ship him back. The patient is one of the few locals to return, and eventually comes out of his coma. But Mariana becomes bewitched by the primal landscapes, the island’s lawlessness (she fights off a boy rapist with the help of a dog and no police ever come to help), the desperate cholera situation of the island on the ground and, in the end, after making a game try to relate with her now belligerent patient and the people on the island finds that she’s just knocking her head against the wall trying to crack the secret life of the impoverished tight-knit community–a place where children are routinely born out of wedlock and fathers don’t know the names of their children, and where Leão is one of twenty children sired by the street fiddler Bassoé (Raul Andrade). Also on the island is the white French woman Edith (Edith Scob), the island’s benefactress, who came here with her lover when he was exiled for political reasons from France and remained with her good for nothing aimless son (Pedro Hestnes) even after her lover died.

The inadequate narrative is almost rescued from all its loose threads by the strangely eerie mood of alienation it magically depicts, but even with such arty cinematic moments the film has too many shortcomings it just can’t sidestep.

REVIEWED ON 10/27/2008 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”