Coast of Death (Costa da Morte): Palm Springs Review

A surprisingly accessible, spectacular combination of the visually striking and the thought-provoking.

Currently doing the festival rounds, including an appearance at Palm Springs, Lois Patino's debut is a poetic documentary exploration of a small coastal region in the north of Spain.

A loving, painterly evocation of a famously mysterious area of Spain, Coast of Death is a fine celebration of a landscape, but also of the people whose lives have been shaped by it. In an admittedly limited field, Lois Patino's first film is the best full-length Spanish poetic landscape documentary debut since Mercedes Alvarez' The Sky Turns, Patino like Alvarez drawing on the tradition of slow-moving but hawk-eyed film as practiced in Spain by Victor Erice and developed by Jose Luis Guerin. Patino took the Best Emerging Filmmaker award at Locarno in 2013, with Coast looking set to continue making festival waves.

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The Coast of Death ("Costa da Morte" in the Galician language, which is used throughout) is a slice of coastline in Galicia in northwestern Spain that takes its name from the fact that since Roman times ships are said to have foundered on its rocks, sometimes having been enticed there. Patino's take on it is primarily visual rather than verbal, often employing lengthy, static long-distance shots of land and sea that include tiny people whose snatches of dialogue, however, come over loud and clear. It's a clever way of reminding the viewer that human beings, while always subservient to the landscape, are still individuals. Though the effect starts to feel a little repetitive, it's undeniably impressive.

Although one disconsolate local offers the opinion that it should have a less frightening name, Patino's film often suggests that death is, in fact, never very far away for many of the inhabitants of this particular coastline. The sea is generally noisily angry, and fishing boats are filmed not so much bobbing about on the waves as being bobbed about by them. Breathtakingly, people gathering barnacles explore the rocks but every so often have to run for cover at the approach of a massive oncoming wave behind rocks which themselves offer very little cover.

The area has a reputation for spawning legends that are lost in the mists of time, and indeed this is surely one of the mistiest movies a viewer is likely to see. There is a wonderful, murky vagueness about some of the recollections we overhear, as when one elderly man implausibly recalls when he was a boy "70, 80, 90, a hundred years ago …" Some of the legends, too, sound too good to be true, as when a woman recalls the wreck of a merchant ship containing condensed milk, which local people then used to paint their houses.

Dialog is never a direct commentary on the action, but is rather fly-on-the-wall stuff. Such touches of wry surrealism stud the film: One scene depicts families picnicking atop a mountain to the accompaniment of a tinny live version of a blues number by the Italian rock star Zucchero; another shows a somewhat depressing-looking local fiesta taking place in the middle of a muddy field.

The film is also about how people transform the landscape to their own ends: stone is quarried, with one explosion likely to awaken audiences from their pleasant trance; trees are felled and logged; the sea is mined. But there is also social comment sprinkled in among all the sweeping, aerial beauty (the contribution of photographer Carla Andrade to a project which at times straddles the film/photography divide is paramount).

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"Politicians who don't know about fishing should leave the fishing to us," says one man, referring to the Prestige disaster, an insanely mismanaged oil spill that 10 years ago decimated the Galician coastline (along with many other coastlines). Time is also made for the stomach-turning local fiesta called the "Rapa das Bestias," in which horses are wrestled to the earth before being branded: despite all the mistiness, and the evocativeness, and the storm-cloudy skies, perhaps the greatest virtue of  this essentially maritime work is that it never forgets to keep its feet firmly on the ground.

The delicate soundwork by Miguel Calvo and Erik T. Jensen is crucial to the film's multiple moods. But a couple of the scenes, such as one showing a bellringer -- the chiming rather wearily indicating the implacable march of time -- go on just too long, in a film whose sense of rhythm is otherwise impeccable.

Production: Zeitun Films
Director, photography: Lois Patino, Carla Andrade
Producers: Felipe Lage Coro, Martin Pawley
Editors: Lois Patino, Pablo Gil Rituerto
Music: Ana Deveria
Sound: Miguel Calvo (Maiki), Erik T. Jensen
Sales: Zeitun Films

No rating, 83 minutes