Cannes 2024 review: When the Land Runs Away (Frederico Lobo)

When the Land Runs Away is a poem and a funeral procession, a snapshot of cyclical movements of wreckage and renewal thrown off their balance, broken but not defeated.”

In the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, two Portuguese films depict the same issue through distinct strategies. In his feature film, Savanna and the Mountain, Paulo Carneiro goes to Covas do Barroso in the north of Portugal, staging a Western-flavored take on the villagers’ strife against a British firm intent on exploiting the land for lithium. There’s an oddball comedy to the irreverent picture, laced with the heartfelt but ultimately powerless clamor of a protest song performed between friends. It’s not a stab at effective political activism through film, but it’s not trying to be. One could say the same about Frederico Lobo’s When the Land Runs Away. However, this short film is starkly different in tone and effect, doing away with the pretense of lark for a register closer to the lyrical, perchance an elegy for a world that’s being lost.

It starts with a visceral immediacy, as Lobo’s camera spies upon the extraction of lithium samples from the soil. Mechanical brutality takes center stage as drills force their way into bedrock. Hydraulic fluid spurts everywhere, and metal rods thrust inside, a violent rhythm that approaches abstraction as the moment stretches, and Lobo’s gaze remains unwavering. Neither in horror nor glorification, the director’s approach feels almost attuned to the potential sexuality in the image, the motion, and the plunder. In effect, he’s documenting a transgression of Man where he doesn’t belong, in awe of the engineering power yet distant enough to recognize its violence. But of course, the natural world is full of violence, so it’s not as if destructive forces, in their ontological essence, were anathema to the mountain’s ways. Natural orders can coexist with annihilation, as they can coexist with Man. Still, something feels wrong here.

That ineffable feeling haunts the film, a spectral veil over the screen, its ghostly sounds, and languorous rhythms. When human voice ruptures through the mountain’s silence and the mining cacophony, one can’t help but recognize the phantasmagoria implicit within. Lobo isn’t subtle, nor must he be, orchestrating the documentary-like folk song recordings to make them appear like the landscape’s wailing. Traditions of time immemorial, built upon the coexistence of people and their mountain home, are the vista’s voice. And they sound off, echoing in the emptiness, a lament that’s half a step removed from a dirge. When the Land Runs Away is a poem and a funeral procession, a snapshot of cyclical movements of wreckage and renewal thrown off their balance, broken but not defeated.

What was once thought eternal never was, for even the mightiest mountain transforms, the landscape aging its way into another life, another shape in the earth’s malleable surface. It’s the increased velocity of change that strikes human consciousness and makes us recognize a wrongness in the brutalized land. It’s as if the mountain were running away from its ancestral people, pulled and pushed by exterior forces whose dictums make themselves known on old TVs that always seem on, though few folks pay them any mind. So, the people grow weary and lost, and, as the camera observes their sorrow, the idea blossoms that the landscape is not just the land but the people, too. Disrupting that bond is a crime of cosmic proportions, something that’s hard to articulate in plain verbiage. Thankfully, there’s cinema to give it shape.

It does this through various mechanisms, including the aforementioned rape of the bedrock and human voice as vehicle for the mountain’s cry. Lobo also includes the quotidian drama of a shepherd who lost his cow, staging the affair in fog and morning mist. The feeling of something slipping away persists as shots play like exercises in turning the mundane into audiovisual poetry. The motion of animals and the camera float in and out of sight, nothingness dematerializing the familiar imagery until it’s all alien to the human eye. In shadow and smoke, even the muscular livestock feels as if it could vanish, its great mass as ethereal as the clouds whispering their way between. On another note, Lobo invokes pictures of childhood, in contrast to an aged population that remains in these rural areas of northern Portugal. The sight of youth is a further tie between people and the land. It implies an echo of the natural cycles and a flexibility of time that goes beyond people’s direct perception of it. In these and other ways, Frederico Lobo’s 16mm short documentary is a ravishment of the senses, an example of sensual filmmaking taken to an extreme of ecological grief. When the Land Runs Away is at the peak of its powers in moments of sublimated emotion, loss resonates tremendously in images as simple and quiet as a dead root enshrined in shadow. Libations of wine-like water over the wood suggest some mysterious rite, liquid procured from fountains in flooded villages. It makes it seem as if the ghost town is bleeding. Though, maybe it’s not the fluid from a wound or the dirty water of a poisoned well. Maybe it’s an offering of the land to its people – it’s hard to say when hard truth is overtaken by poetry. Regardless of the reading, the sorrow remains unchanged, and the still life still hurts to see – but oh, what glorious pain. And what glorious cinema, preserving a people’s memory of their land for when it is no more, impermanent sights crystalized in the amber of celluloid.