Marianna (Ines de Medeiros) is a nurse who escorts a comatose Leao (Isaach de Bankole) from Portugal to his homeland of the Cape Verde Islands. When they arrive, she is practically dumped by the helicopter pilots who leave her to return to an undisclosed war. They eventually get moved to a hospital, but no-one will claim Leao stating that no-one knows him.
While Leao lays asleep Marianna wanders around the volcanic island, slowly becoming mesmerised by the people and the sights. Most notably she revels at an all-night party, yet moments of fear remain from the presence of rabid dogs.
This film is still expressive of a director finding his feet and attempting to make his voice heard above the crowd. Like most European auteurs, Costa has an observant camera that allows action to take place in the frame and not pursuing a reaction although his films do sometimes harness documentary sensibilities in their overall outcome.
Costa was abandoned himself as a child, so the yearning for a nuclear family is apparent in the traits of his characters, who he uses as versions of himself - they are searching for a home or a settled place. Marianna is a lost soul, lost in the sense that she is far from home and in a strange land; Leao is also lost in the sense that he has not been found by anyone who can claim him, and so both are of no fixed abode or location - Costa would return to these traits of loneliness and alienation in his masterpiece Colassal Youth (2006)
Marianna is another of the strong female characters who are independent in spirit and conviction. As a nurse, she knows nothing about the people she treats, the week on the Casa de Lava allows her eyes to be opened. Her independent spirit is helped by having her wear this red vibrant dress signifying both fire and warmth - these little touches by Costa marks him out as a keen observer of people, much like his fellow countryman Manuel de Oliveria.
There are moments of melodrama you would anticipate in European auteur cinema, yet this is not over-reached due to the placing of Marianna/Leao in a strange land. By stumbling into a place of purgatory, people are most scared of dying and the unknown hence the tentative treatment towards strangers yet the natives are seemingly accepting of their lot in life.
The use of landscape and environment is so richly established it becomes a character in its own right as well as a notable narrative device; the human characters act like they do because of the location and vice versa.
Casa de Lava (1994) is released on DVD by Second Run Films today, Monday 24th September and on the disc there are many features; a new HD master of the film especially for this release; an interview with the director discussing the film; an interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel and a new essay by renowned film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.