Ossos (1997)

FILM, Film Society

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

Portugese director Pedro Costa has developed a hardcore aficionado reputation for his minimalist, naturalistic portraits of those forgotten in society, but has struggled to get much of a foothold himself. His Fontaínhas trilogy is getting its overdue first release in New Zealand via the Film Society. And while his films are undeniably challenging (and reportedly even more challenging as the trilogy progresses), it’s thrilling cinema, the type of formally challenging and distinctive filmmaking that needs to be projected more often in New Zealand.

Ossos (Bones) is the first in the trilogy, a focus on the Lisbon discarded. It follows a young couple completely unready for parenthood. Tina (Mariya Lipkina), seemingly hollowed out (both physically and mentally) by becoming a mother, has a barely functioning relationship with the baby’s father (Nuno Vaz). The father kidnaps the baby to use for begging purposes. Tina’s subsequent mental collapse forces her friend Clotilde (Vanda Duarte) to step in; her calm, meditative presence offering a bit of protection for Tina.

Costa’s filmmaking effaces the difference between public and private spaces. Some of the characters’ most personal moments take place in public, clutter takes up most of the mise-en-scène, people inhabit corners and decrepit buildings, windows and doors are often left open; characters’ looks ruin moments of privacy. Even in moments hidden away, Costa’s sound design and stark use of light never allows us to forget the outside world. It’s remarkably intrusive filmmaking—‘everydayness’ mingles with the characters, leading to a deeply claustrophobic and ‘realistic’ world that the characters find themselves in.

If anything, the uncomfortable realism jars with the ‘unnatural’ nature in which Costa sometimes constructs his action. My colleague Tim Wong noted the awkwardness of the silence and the characters’ interaction (or lack thereof), which he found more noticeable in his third time viewing of the film. The pauses, held poses, and unnatural movements certainly have an effect of theatricality in their depiction of alienation, and this perhaps goes someway to explaining why some in the audience found the film a little alienating.

That said, the ellipsis of the editing and the obtuse storytelling slowly build to an emotionally potent climax. The characters are flawed, and yet Costa isn’t one to romanticise them or wallow in their poverty in a dispassionate essayist. They’re also so deeply human, that you feel like you’re living there with them. And it makes the conclusion seem all the more moving: as a door shuts out the exterior world, the characters find a brief moment of refuge.

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.