Lofty, poetic and strewn with arcane symbolism, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s sophomore feature, “Down to Earth,” flies in the face of its English-language title. Beautifully crafted and intensely played out against a brooding volcanic landscape, this meandering hell-on-Earth reverie is nonetheless too frustratingly impenetrable to erupt far beyond the fest circuit.
Opening takes place in Portugal, where immigrant worker Leao (Isaach de Bankole) slips into a coma following an accident. A nurse, Mariana (Ines Medeiros), is assigned to accompany him home to the Cape Verde islands. She embraces the chance to escape from the bleakness of her life and deliver the injured man to a more fulfilling existence. She stays on to tend to him while medical supplies are brought to the ill-equipped local hospital.
As Leao hovers on the edge of consciousness in a deathlike trance, Mariana’s encounters with the locals begin to have an oppressive effect on her. She meets a withered violinist with 20 children; a Portuguese widow, who stayed on after her husband’s death, completely sapped of her strength; the woman’s son, who attempts to latch onto Mariana for the life in her.
Mariana is gradually pulled into the miasma of hopelessness that permeates the barren place, and the hell she fled begins to look comparatively rosy.
The film’s indolent rhythm, generally elliptical dialogue and stubbornly cryptic plot development make it a long, demanding sit. Those willing to go with its unforthcoming nature, however, will find considerable visual rewards in Emmanuel Machuel’s handsome lensing, capturing the stark geography in light that positively glows.
Though the austere meditation throws out far too few clues to make itsnarrative completely accessible, Costa’s eminently skilled direction sustains an intoxicating, sorrowful mood that finds worthy soul mates in the fine cast.