Monday, February 09, 2015

Coast of Death: Galician Landscape Cinema

It sounds like an unduly severe nickname. In modern days, this rough patch of Galician shoreline might have been dubbed the “Coast of Insurance Claims” instead. Notorious for the many shipwrecks dotting its waters, this picturesque coastland supplies a hard but steady living to the weathered locals. Lois Patiño, in collaboration with assistant director Carla Andrade, paints an austere portrait of the land and its inhabitants in Coast of Death (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you asked them, the taciturn fishermen, sea-combers, and foresters would say they were Galician, not Spanish. Patiño quietly records their intermittent conversations as they go about their work, but he is more concerned with the general ambiance than the particulars of their shell fish harvesting. Through the film, he maintains long slow fixed takes that focus on the wide misty vistas rather than any of the faceless people laboring antlike in a corner of the screen. It is hard to get a sense of the personalities attached to the ghostly voices occasionally floating through the film, aside from two old-timers Patiño periodically returns to for their salty commentary.

Coast is sort of like watching an entire film made up of ECM covers. It looks great from the outside, but in this case, there is no record inside. Eschewing narrative and other such conventionalities, Coast is truly landscape cinema in the Peter Hutton tradition. Granted, Patiño is working with a few big themes, like eternity and man’s interrelationship with nature. With respect to the latter, the infamous mishandling of the 2002 Prestige oil spill is referenced several times throughout the sparse voice-overs, but the two grizzled cats claim to have seen worse when a National Socialist petrol tanker foundered in the shoals during WWII.

More than one decade after the Prestige spill and seventy-some years since the previous tanker misadventure, the titular coast looks timeless and unspoiled. The modern world (and its carnivals) has reached their remote corner of Spain/Galicia, but you would hardly know it from the daily rhythms Patiño documents. Initially, it is a strangely immersive viewing experience, but the eighty-five minute film eventually starts to repeat itself.

Serving as his own cinematographer, Patiño captures some lovely images—and he is not afraid to hold them for as long as he feels necessary. This will work for some audience, but not for others. Recommended for those more concerned with the form of cinema than the substance, Coast of Death opens this Friday (2/13) in New York, at the Anthology Film Archives.