In Vanda’s Room (2000);
Colossal Youth (2006)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: Part two and three of Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas trilogy.

If Ossos was a restless, rootless take on ennui, the second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas trilogy, In Vanda’s Room, is one that is firmly stuck in the mire. While Ossos blurred public and private life to the point that the characters couldn’t find any refuge, In Vanda’s Room focuses on walls and stasis. It’s a relentless and unremittingly raw watch, and Costa’s camera doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of a few inhabitants stuck in Lisbon slums. But it’s also remarkable for what it presents, despite what we see: the stories, the camaraderie, and the life that exists in amongst the squalor.

The ostensible main character is Vanda Duarte. Duarte played the almost moral centre of Ossos, but in In Vanda’s Room, she’s cranky, doubled over with a hacking cough, and a crack addict. Costa doesn’t shy away from showing her habit—after all, her cough and the flies are two of the most potent things in the film. Nor does Costa pretend that the drugs don’t have a debilitating effect on Vanda and the people around her (this becomes even clearer in Colossal Youth). Other neighbours also have vignettes observed—drug addiction and social dislocation feature in amongst the chatter and tales. And despite the graphic nature of the drug-taking (those with an aversion to needles may struggle), Costa never wallows or romanticises his protagonists.

While his characters look and act like ghosts, they also have enough spark to make their tales immensely compelling. Costa’s merely interested (which is much more revolutionary than it sounds), and as a result, offers an intimate and deeply human depiction. He eschews the artificial set-up of Ossos and strips his production team almost right down to the absolute minimum (for the most part, just him) in order to let the characters’ voices appear less mediated by his own point of view. And as a result, the characters’ tales—loosely connected, lacking in any sort of traditional narrative structure—become the film’s driving point.

But despite this stasis and Costa’s strict use of close-ups to observe his subjects, everything else around them is in considerable flux. The slums are being cleared, brick by brick, as if the world that the characters constructed around them can simply be cleared and rebuilt; that the scars and the ties of their lives appear to have little meaning in the whole scheme of things. However, Costa’s keen to point out, that no matter our discomfort at seeing the characters eke out their lives, there’s enough life to suggest it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

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Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas trilogy isn’t one of cinema’s easiest watches. However, Costa’s counter-history of Lisbon’s forgotten offers one of the most rewarding and potent pieces of cinema in recent times. Over the course of a decade he has captured a community forced to scratch a living, forced to relocate, and forced to deal with their own issues, while at the same time giving life to a group of people society usually at best, ignores, and at worst, assumes to be dead. But Costa doesn’t want you to think that he’s someone responsible for ‘saving’  or ‘preserving’ his protagonists—it’s their stories and their faces that is the art.

In Colossal Youth, an itinerant, slightly older than middle-aged man, is Costa’s guide. Ventura shuffles around the cityscape, in a zombied state, visiting people he may or may not be connected to. The slums as we know it are gone; big apartment blocks have replaced them. Vanda’s still around—she’s kicked the crack (relying on methadone) and has a daughter; other characters have died.

Ventura’s world is full of twisting alleyways, half-ruined walls, and stark white spaces. The film begins almost like Dr. Caligari, with skewed camera angles, and diagonal lines disorienting the viewer, while hinting at an underlying trauma. Costa’s heavy use of chiaroscuro lighting in the opening half of the film is also disconcerting—the shadows and the ‘unnatural’ light seemingly contributing to Ventura’s confusion. Costa presents time as unstable, due to a lack of distinct narrative arcs or character development. And there’s a simple beauty to Costa’s images too, the use of light and shadows composed like brushstrokes.

As the film progresses, we slowly start to see Ventura find his bearings in amongst the rubble and the soulless apartments; the stories that exist in amongst the seemingly blank canvases. And it’s the stories that Ventura hears and tells, the histories, and the shared family history (no matter how tenuous), which ultimately ground Ventura in that landscape.

A telling scene in the film involves Ventura sitting in a museum, and being removed, essentially for not belonging there. The paintings behind tell the stories of their subjects, freezing them for posterity. But those paintings don’t reflect Ventura in any way. As with In Vanda’s Room, Costa is interested in the stories his characters tell half to themselves, half to himself (almost like impressionistic short stories), and he presents a group of people, in spite of the dislocation, linking themselves to a shared history.

It doesn’t matter that the stories perhaps reflect the pain of their current lives in Portugal. (The majority of the characters are Cape Verdean immigrants.) It’s the acknowledgement and freezing of one’s past that is crucial to defining oneself. And that seems to be how Costa views himself as a filmmaker: he gives voice to those who aren’t given any in society, or more simply, he lets them speak. And, he insists that no matter how uncomfortable their tales might appear, they’re tales that need to be told.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.