Far Out

07.10.12

Gonçalo Tocha, It’s the Earth Not the Moon, 2011, digital video, color, 183 minutes.


CORVO, THE SMALLEST AND FARTHEST WEST of the nine islands that comprise the Azores archipelago, is situated in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly a thousand miles west of Lisbon, 1200 miles southeast of Newfoundland, and 2100 miles from North America. According to Gonçalo Tocha’s documentary It’s the Earth Not the Moon, there is no history of the island, not even a written memoir by a native or a visitor. (The title comes from a 1970 newspaper article that the island’s resident chronicler, who has kept records for the past forty years, shows the filmmaker.) With only about 450 permanent inhabitants, Corvo is the least-populated of the Azores and, unlike its sisters, did not serve as an air base for the Allies during World War II. Like the other islands, Corvo was formed and is dominated by a huge though inactive volcano, and purportedly has earthen structures dating back two thousand years, suggesting human presence before the Portuguese settlement that has dominated all the Azores for the past six centuries. Despite the film’s title, however, Corvo is no more alien-looking than many islands and, given its connections to its sister islands and to the Portuguese mainland, is not exactly “stranded” in the middle of the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, the fact that Corvo has such a small population, along with one village, one airport, one church (Catholic), one road, one school, one health center, and, if one can believe it, one restaurant, prompts the filmmaker and his assistant to jokingly promise at the outset that they will film every face, every street, every workplace, every rock, every tree, every animal of this “primeval” world—a term that speaks to Corvo’s volcanic origins 700,000 years ago. The result, while no rival of Robert Flaherty’s majestic Man of Aran (1934), nor a match of Werner Herzog’s eccentric ethnographic excursions, is a patiently observed, quietly filmed exploration of the island’s botanical and geographic life, as well as its social, cultural, and economic structures. A cinematic record divided into fifteen chapters, the camera does most of the work with minimal, mostly neutral audio commentary. This works fine with the long silent gazes at land and seascapes, the views of agricultural and forestry activities, slaughterhouse, and cheese factory. It also seems right for the intimate visits to craftsmen, the island’s chronicler, church services, and the old woman knitting a traditional Corvo beret throughout for the filmmaker.

The approach is more questionable when we hear a political speech about the island’s diminishing social services and workers’ rights and wonder how seriously we’re meant to take it. Though such data may counteract an impression that the filmmaker wants us to think he has found a harmonious earthly paradise, the viewer may feel that something is missing. I certainly wanted to know more about the German piano teacher who came to Corvo precisely because it was “the furthest point in Europe.” Among the more wiling raconteurs, one tells a story about the old whaling days, while a man identified as the second oldest on the island follows his statistics with the curious remark, “Do you want more lies?” Is this the island’s cynic or its stand-up comic?

Near the close of its three hours, the film offers us two affecting montage sequences that require no comment, on the one hand a juxtaposition of the natural signs of the island’s primeval character—the volcano, the sea, random rocks, and ancient bones—and on the other, an iconic display of the rugged, enduring human faces of its native population. A sobering touch is the shadow of—one presumes—the filmmaker, camera in hand, stretching across and then dissolving slowly into the earthen landscape, a gesture that bluntly marks his visitation just as it replays the perpetual cycle of appearance and erasure of human life to which Corvo, like all such islands, has given silent witness over thousands of years.

Tony Pipolo

It’s the Earth Not the Moon has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives July 13–19.