Introducing Pedro Costa

Features, FILM, Film Society
Charting the evolution—and revolution—of the Portuguese auteur’s miraculous cinema, at last set to screen in New Zealand courtesy of the Film Society.

On the international film circuit, it goes without saying that Pedro Costa is one of the most important filmmakers working today—a statement largely irrelevant to New Zealand audiences, who up until recently, remained firmly out of the loop. Since Cannes 2006, where Costa’s divisive competition entry was churlishly received, a retrospective-as-redress has toured the world to renewed critical respect without crossing our shores. Last year, when the New Zealand International Film Festival finally introduced filmgoers to Costa with his latest, Ne change rien (2009)—an intensive, ritualistic study of the creative rigours undertaken by the French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar—attendance was appreciative if tellingly sparse. Isolated in that context, Costa’s cinema stood little chance of gaining the attention it deserved; only now do we have the Film Society to thank for this second, more dedicated exposure of the Portuguese director’s work. The three films to be presented in May and June (complete in Auckland and Wellington, with Hamilton and Dunedin to receive a single screening each) fall under the banner of the Fontaínhas trilogy: Ossos (Bones, 1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006) works that collectively build a portrait of a master coming to terms with the limitations and possibilities of his filmmaking practice. Although uniformly about the Lisbon housing slum and its residents the trilogy takes it name from, these remarkable films, when viewed chronologically, map out an extraordinary evolution, not just of the artistic process, but of auteur cinema itself.

A native of Lisbon, Costa attended film school northwest of the Portuguese capital in the early eighties, before emerging with his debut feature, O Sangue (Blood, 1989): a fraught saga of two brothers and a young woman who form a makeshift family in the mysterious absence of their father. An exceptional first film by anyone’s standards, it establishes, in concentrated black and white, a style and tone at once classical and instantly radical, announced from the moment the opening credits recede to reveal a man, in stark close-up, being violently slapped across the cheek. Waking us from our stupor, Costa’s images and sounds are thrown into sharp relief in such a way that suggests every shot could be the film’s first and last. The result is a kind of discordant beauty, located somewhere between powerful, almost grandiose lyricism, and a hard-edged minimalism that feels constantly unsettled from scene to scene. Through this early, fervid discontinuity, soon to be properly tamed, we can begin to define Costa’s cinema: formally in the transfixing close-ups, reverence for faces, and highly refined sound design; and functionally in the rejection of traditional narrative tropes, signaled here by the autonomy he grants his characters, freed from the obligation to humour the audience with gestures and exposition, names and places.

What this otherwise elliptical approach to storytelling indicates is the heavy influence of auteurist cinema, and Costa’s films to come will favour long takes, static camera setups, wordless pauses, and narratives as patient as they are spare. But in trailing his European contemporaries, Costa will inevitably overtake them in search of new filmmaking strategies. Between O Sangue, and his sophomore effort, Casa de Lava (Down to Earth, 1994), a dramatic shift has taken place, evident in the latter film’s release from the grip of cinematic heroes. Often referred to as a “cinephile film”, O Sangue is equally invigorated and burdened by its inspirations—from Robert Bresson, to Jacques Tourneur, to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet—and while far from indulgent in its worship, is ultimately hamstrung by Costa’s deep affection for these directors. (Nevertheless, for lovers of classical Hollywood and European art cinema, O Sangue is heaven-sent.) Although in theory a remake of Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Casa de Lava is a work unshackled from the past and allowed to breathe, whose mood has calmed from the tempestuous heights of before. Within the story of a Lisbon nurse who accompanies a comatose patient back to Cape Verde, Costa plants the seeds of the Fontaínhas trilogy: namely, a fascination with the Creole people of the volcanic island, and the existential limbo they find themselves in, torn between the exodus to Portugal and the attachment to their land and community.

Now self-assured and measured in his film direction, Costa arrives at a thematic plurality where an enthusiasm for style once dominated. The zombie metaphor—eloquently woven into the story so as to manifest not only in the unconscious patient and the uncertain future of the island population, but the characters’ latent desires and the restless landscape that surrounds them—will linger long into Costa’s oeuvre, for his subjects will continue to live in purgatory or resemble the walking dead. Implicit, too, is the socio-political content of the film. On the surface a commentary on the post-colonial condition of Cape Verde, its relationship to Portugal, and the mass migration of its residents, Casa de Lava additionally serves as ethnography, insofar as it documents, as much as narrates, the lives of the Cape Verdeans and the richness of their unique culture. Thus, the displacement of Cape Verdeans as they are drawn to the “mainland” reverberates deep into the Fontaínhas trilogy; their lineage carried through by actual inhabitants of the island cast in Casa de Lava who will, in spirit (or in the case of the monobrowed teenager Clotilde Montron, literally) reappear. As if stowed away on board Costa’s return trip to Lisbon, these immigrants will supplant the professional actors previously favoured (such as Isaach De Bankolé and Edith Scob, names associated with great auteurs), bringing an intrinsic humanity to his cinema, if not a compelling reason to desert one way of shooting for another technically and morally transformed.

With Ossos, Costa utilizes a mixture of actors and non-professionals, but one real Fontaínhas resident principally: the junkie Vanda Duarte, whose piercing, androgynous features offer an explicit counterpoint to the conventional screen beauty of Inês de Medeiros, star of Casa de Lava. Having met Duarte after being led to the poverty-stricken neighbourhood that many Cape Verdeans now called home—some of whom he had letters and packages to pass on from island relatives—Costa cast her nominally in a secondary role. Watching Ossos though, and in spite of her exclusion from dramatic aspects of the narrative, it is clear that Duarte is the centre of the film, an omnipresent guardian who observes and, when necessary, intervenes in the plight of her neighbour Tina (Mariya Lipkina), a reluctant mother barely equipped to care for her newborn baby. The boyfriend (Nuno Vaz), a sad and incapable young man, can’t support the child either, and considers abandoning it. What transpires from this set-up—cited as prefiguring the Dardenne brothers’ L’enfant (The Child, 2005)—is, to a large extent, uneventful, perhaps why Duarte’s character, Clotilde, appears so close to the foreground. More than simply a presiding figure, she acts as a guide from scene to scene, in her own way anticipating the roaming paternal spectre of Ventura, Colossal Youth’s surrogate father to a family of Fontaínhas lost souls.

Ossos is outstanding cinema in its own right, a model of economy, precision, and rigour in filmmaking; emotive lighting and still cinematography; dynamic cinematic space; and narrative ellipsis, which is at once aggressive and delicate in its placement. Out all of Costa’s films, it stands comfortably alone. And yet to contextualise Ossos within an entire body of work is to render it redundant, to mark it as the end of a chapter in a lengthy artistic process. A false masterpiece, it is distanced by its perfection. Fine-tuning, and therefore expiring, a proven method for making movies—one which, as has been frequently noted, would still have cemented its director as a celebrated auteur had he maintained course—the production of Ossos, as a mechanism of film industry, precipitated a turning point in Costa’s practice, conscience, and art. Lamenting the unwanted cameras, lights, and crew that his film carted into the neighbourhood, sometimes at ungodly hours of the night, and the obvious intrusion on the people of Fontaínhas, Costa’s sense of unease directly resulted in his next project, the revelatory In Vanda’s Room.

From the exterior an austere, unsentimental documentary on drug addiction and squalor, In Vanda’s Room possesses miraculous qualities that transcend its difficult appearance, and to examine it in relation to the preceding film is to realise just how much of a revelation it is. Gone, significantly, is the 35mm camera and film crew that hovered in the background, leaving Costa, often on his own, and a basic Panasonic DV camera, to fully immerse in the milieu of the Lisbon ghetto, now a crumbling subterranea in the first stages of demolition. Over the course of a year, Costa recorded the comings and goings of locals, the light and texture of decrepit living spaces, and the sound of bulldozers moving closer—fragments and vignettes that orbit around the titular Duarte, here no longer in character, but as her drug-dependent self. It is not easy to watch (or indeed, hear) Duarte splutter her way through the daily cycle of substance abuse, and the film makes no apologies for holding its stare. And yet, as bleak as it sounds, this is the key to its intimacy and unlikely beauty. By detaching himself from the artifice of the production unit and its conspicuous presence, Costa has been able to reduce cinema to its essence: to look, and to listen, the clarity of which enables individuals we might otherwise pity—a suicidal teenager, a wiry heroin addict, a disoriented elderly immigrant from Cape Verde—to exist on their own terms, in need of neither sympathy nor dignifying. There are no stories to speak of, simply lives in situ.

In Vanda’s Room is distilled in many other respects. Its intense focus gives rise to some of the most vivid close-ups in memory, in an oeuvre that has revitalized the art of the close-up. The conversations Vanda, sister Zita, and other slum dwellers have over the course of the three-hour duration resonate with a different kind of veracity, one not possible under the circumstances Ossos was made. It is nakedly political, a voice on the side of the disenfranchised underclass. As upfront and face-to-face as the film is, it is not strictly a documentary either; not a confrontation of reality, but a shared experience between filmmaker and community, open to truth and mystery in equal parts. It is also a prime example of “difficult cinema”, that thorny category given to movies articulated through inaction, ambiguity, and silence. Critics have pronounced In Vanda’s Room as Costa’s “breakthrough” and “giant leap”, however less mentioned is the leap of faith it demands of the audience. I for one struggled to make the hurdle on my first encounter with the film. Since revisiting it though, I can attest to its rewards, and encourage viewers to surrender to its drastically stripped back form, not the least of which helps acclimatize us to the trilogy’s concluding film, Colossal Youth.

The interesting thing about the transition from first to second film in the trilogy is how one upends the other: for what appeared candid and privileged in Ossos is exposed by In Vanda’s Room as engineered and obscured in the orthodox moviemaking process. Securing Colossal Youth as a true masterpiece is the unity it achieves between the sacred universe of Fontaínhas, and the mediation of cinema, which Costa, or any director for that matter, must acknowledge their role in. The film, which borrows its title from a Young Marble Giants album—thankfully, in a manner less incongruous than the deployment of Wire’s ‘Lowdown’ in a scene in Ossos—genuinely resists fictional or non-fictional classification, its liminality aligned with the in-between state of the dispossessed, who don’t so much inhabit, as haunt the ruins of the now-demolished suburb. Still, signs of life register in concrete pockets and brittle alleyways, unearthed from the rubble by Ventura, Colossal Youth’s sombre yet charismatic vagabond. In his travels, we meet his wife, his daughters, and other pseudo-relations in an extended, site-specific family. We pay visit to Vanda, boxed into a modernist white compartment inside of a soulless new housing project. And we learn of Ventura’s fate, homeless despite the promise of an apartment for himself and his offspring in an adjacent tower block, erected to accommodate the Fontaínhas displaced.

Colossal Youth represents the apex of the Fontaínhas trilogy and of Costa’s career to date—a film at the artistic peak of his development as an auteur, doubly groundbreaking as a way forward for Digital cinema. Its political message is clear-cut without being force-fed, delivered not by Costa, but through him by stalwarts of a disassembled community—the secret to its humanism and empathy. Architecturally, public and personal spaces serve as a monument to real memory, to the lives of the people embedded there, both physical and apparitional in their presence. The images, cast in fading light, composed with a feeling for some kind of otherness, captured in opaque digital photography, are more astonishing than ever. Aesthetic and narrative strands bleed hypnotically together: sounds, colours, and shadows; spoken histories and silent stares; actual and undisclosed stories; the time and place where events occur. In this sublime haze, Costa has produced a work inscrutable yet mesmerizing, honest yet otherworldly, a combination only possible with the medium of cinema. That is its singularity, but then, to attempt to describe its power is to also diminish its effect, if not the cumulative effect of the trilogy as a whole. Since the release of Colossal Youth, much has been written extolling the virtues of Costa’s films, however for New Zealand filmgoers, the opportunity to actually see them (on the big screen, at least) has only come now. All that is left is to experience these tragic, humbling, and vital works of modern cinema for oneself.

Pedro Costa was born 1959 in Lisbon, Portugal. His other films include the shorts ‘Tarrafal’ (2007) and ‘The Rabbit Hunters’ (2007), both made with Ventura; ‘Ne change rien’ (2005), originally a short but expanded to feature length in 2009; and ‘Where Does Your Smile Lie’ (2001), a documentary on the filmmaking process of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.
The Fontaínhas Trilogy screens on the following dates in May and June: Wellington Film Society, Paramount Cinema, Mondays, 6.15pm (‘Ossos’ May 23 / ‘In Vanda’s Room’ June 13 / ‘Colossal Youth’ June 27); Auckland Film Society, Academy Cinema, Mondays or Tuesdays, 6.30pm (‘Ossos’ May 30 / ‘In Vanda’s Room’ June 7 / ‘Colossal Youth’ June 20); Hamilton Film Society, Lido Cinema, Monday 8pm (‘Ossos’ June 13); Dunedin Film Society, Church Cinema, Wednesday 7.30pm (‘Colossal Youth’ June 1).
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.
Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Society

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.