Walking into Colossal Youth without any knowledge of Pedro Costa’s work feels akin to watching The Mirror without having ever seen a Tarkovsky film; in both cases, there’s the shock of an augustly personal, even private style that would have been impenetrable if not for the piercingly fierce emotions that pull the viewer into them. Costa’s film is one of such disconcerting paradoxes, a work at once bone-dry and poetic, spectral and visceral, precise and mysterious. The architectural, static compositions (in direct opposition to the youthful “march” of the original Portuguese title) and the performers’ recitative manner point to a welter of stylistic influences, most notably the unadorned formalism of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Yet Colossal Youth feels utterly sui generis, a unique metaphysical vision that, tracing its characters’ dislocation, seems to weave between alternate worlds as easily as it navigates from image to image.
Few modern films so intensely refuse to stick to the medium’s established spatial and temporal principles. Set in the Fontaínhas district, a shantytown located near Lisbon and populated mostly by Cape Verde immigrants, the film opens cryptically, a long shot of furniture thrown out a window in the middle of the night followed by a close-up of a woman who, knife in hand, vehemently recounts a fragmented tale, and disappears. She may be the wife of Ventura, the majestic, elderly slum dweller (played by a nonprofessional of the same name, whom Costa met during the filming of Bones), or, as Ventura says, she may be somebody who simply happened to have his wife’s face. This observation, delivered in the bare way that lends the picture’s dialogue its incantatory vibes, sails straight to the heart of a world where even the most seemingly direct connection to reality is at best tenuous. Ventura’s visits to his “children” throughout the film attest to his hunger for reconciliation and wholeness, only Costa ambiguously hints that the people calling him “papa” may just as well be strangers working through their own lostness by engaging the old man in duets of deadpan distress.
Colossal Youth often suggests a ghost story, a crossroads of evanescent bodies, souls, and relationships. The overwhelming initial impression is one of emptiness: the austere doors from which Ventura’s “son” emerges; the chandelier-decorated room where Vanda (Vanda Duarte) serves dinner in a comatose tableau worthy of early Fassbinder; the new apartment Ventura is being relocated to (a place of such sterility that he can only react by envisioning spiders on its walls). It’s this emptiness that Vanda, the most vital character in the film by dint of her recovering-druggie edginess, rebels against. Sitting on a bed with Ventura by her side, her monologue on family interrupted only by her hacking cough or by a stray comment on the TV program playing just outside of the frame, she’s intent in filling the void with words and feelings, all while fumbling to bond with the man who, whether truly her father or a delusional guest, is clearly a fellow lost soul. It’s interesting that Ventura’s rebellion against the emptiness is aimed not at the empty spaces around him but inward, through the love letter that he composes to a friend (“My love. Being together will brighten our lives for at least 30 years…”) and whose repeated, mutating readings come to express his own crumbling yet defiant romanticism.
Costa reportedly edited the film out of a total of 320 hours of footage shot over two years, and there’s the distinct feeling that Ventura’s wanderings are neither just beginning nor close to an end. As cumulative hints from the characters’ personal lives are gradually mixed with the colonial negligence from Cape Verde’s own past, Costa introduces an oblique political element to the atmosphere of haunted despair. It’s as a compassionate and unmistakably spiritual document, however, that Colossal Youth leaves its deepest marks: The film’s phantoms briefly turn flesh in moments such as Ventura and Vanda’s recognition of their mutual pain, and an intimidating aesthetic experiment becomes directly, colossally affecting.