Costa da Morte is the best nature documentary of the year, mostly because it has nothing in common with what we typically think of as a “nature documentary.” This isn’t Planet Earth or Disney’s African Cats. There is no informative narration, nor the heartwarming story of an animal family struggling in the wilderness. Yet Costa da Morte is more interested in the character of nature itself than most recent examples of the genre.
Directed by Lois Patiño, the film is prefaced by a quotation from Galician poet Castelao: “Upon entering men in landscape and landscape in men, the eternal life of Galicia was created.” This sentiment would make an excellent epigraph for any documentary concerned with the natural world, but Patiño raises the bar by taking it almost literally. Costa da Morte is set in the Spanish region of the same name, the northern coast of the autonomous community of Galicia in the nation’s Northwest corner. Its people live off of the bounty of nature, fishing and quarrying stone amid the grand vistas of their homeland. Patiño opens with a long take of thin trees being harvested for lumber, one at a time falling through the otherwise tranquil, shadowed landscape. This hazy, slow and extended moment lures the audience with a peculiar and elemental magic.
Interestingly, he doesn’t really show the loggers. They’re barely visible, hidden in the fog and dwarfed by the woods. This is the governing style of the film, presenting the inhabitants of Galicia as tiny figures surrounded by the towering beauty of their environment. Every image that includes human figures is shot from far away, keeping them in a very specific perspective. Patiño follows men fishing off of the rocks and women walking down the beach, specks juxtaposed to enormity. Costa da Morte is so-called because of this forbidding natural power. Innumerable ships have sunk over the years along these shores, beaten by the wind into the sharp rocks. Death itself is always looming in these stunning landscapes, however pristine they may appear.
Yet at the same time, as Castelao’s adage suggests, the Galicians do have an active role in their surroundings. Patiño’s principle way of expressing this is the most inspired element of Costa da Morte. While the camera is always placed far away from any people in the shot, the audio is crystal clear, as we’re standing right behind them. The people strolling in the distance may be lilliputian, but their words are loud and clear. Not that any audio equipment appears; Patiño must have given microphones to his subjects. It’s as if we are given the ears of humanity and the eyes of nature itself. This duality of perception is kept up for the whole film.
With this device, Patiño can play with the relationship between Galicia and the Galicians. Sometimes it is entirely harmonious. Among the most powerful images of peace are the profiles of churches, one of which is nestled right up against a stern outcropping of rock. Yet there are also points of stark conflict, in particular the sudden explosions that occur in the quarry. The people are in the landscape and the landscape is in the people, and Costa da Morte is a beautifully crafted exploration of this simultaneity. And while it enmeshes itself in the particular topography of Galicia, it’s hard to imagine a place that wouldn’t have some relationship with this same natural dialog.
This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 4, 2013.