In 1994, then-little-known Portuguese director Pedro Costa traveled to Cape Verde to film his second feature, Casa de Lava. After the shooting had wrapped, a number of residents of the archipelago, which had been a Portuguese province until its 1975 independence, asked him to deliver gifts and letters to relatives who lived in Lisbon. Upon returning home, Costa discovered that many of these relatives resided in dangerous slum communities on the outskirts of the city, particularly in a notorious development known as Fontainhas. Spending time in that community, the director got to know the residents and out of that relationship sprung the most fruitful enterprise of his career, a loose trilogy of groundbreaking films combining various levels of fiction and documentary to chronicle the lives of a handful of the quarter’s inhabitants. During Costa’s 10-year immersion in Fontainhas, the government began a program of slum clearance, relocating the inhabitants to new, more modern housing and the director incorporated this development into the second two films in the trilogy, turning the project into an elegy for a neighborhood that, while having had more than its share of danger and degradation, also housed a vibrant and richly community-based way of life.
The first film in Costa’s trilogy, Ossos, introduces us to both the milieu (a stirringly ugly mix of narrow stone passageways, decaying interiors, and an active street life) and, in part, the aesthetic (long, fixed takes, often framing characters in direct confrontation with the camera, a soundtrack sensitive to the myriad ambient sounds that make up life of the neighborhood) that would go on to characterize the rest of the series. Still, Costa’s 1997 effort must be seen as the director’s last stab at a more traditional mode of filmmaking before moving on to the important breakthroughs of the next two entries in the trilogy. In Ossos, the director remains locked in by the demands of narrative, however clipped and enigmatic its treatment may be, while relying one last time on the film stock he would subsequently abandon in favor of an expressive digital aesthetic.
Still, if Ossos lacks the open-ended expansiveness of the later films, it’s a confident, fully contained work in its own right. Casting local residents in fictional roles (several of whom would appear as themselves in subsequent Costa efforts) and lensed by Emmanuel Machuel in richly graded 35mm that crafts baroque compositions out of the intimate textures of walls and faces, the film combines a documentary sensitivity with a richly Bressonian narrative. Elliptical to the point of near-incomprehension and driven by a series of blank-faced performances, Ossos details the complex life, loves, and questionable behaviors of a group of Fontainhas residents, set in motion by a young father’s decision to abscond with, and attempt to sell off, his newborn baby. Suffused with the palpable presence of death embodied by several characters’ attempts to perpetrate gas-related murder/suicides, and drawn to glimpses of the setting’s peripheral activity, Costa’s third film takes a critically distanced glimpse into a new world and transforms it into a fresh object of contemplation, prescribing the viewer’s rapt involvement in a pair of marginal figures that pop up throughout the film and do little more than look on at the play of lives in front of them.
But when seen in the light of Costa’s subsequent work, Ossos‘s achievement begins to seem something of a dead end, a fact which becomes evident when we consider the various roles assumed throughout the series by Vanda Duarte, cast in the 1997 film as the relatively stoical Clotilde. While this character is allowed a fair amount of narrative agency and endowed with a certain visceral force, Vanda is by necessity restrained, Costa muffling that individual’s periodic bursts of frantically asserted verve that would become central to the next two entries in the trilogy and which prevent those films from standing as simple dehumanizing portraits of poverty.
Opening with a shot of his subject sitting on a bed with her sister, sharing a crack pipe, 2000’s In Vanda’s Room immediately announces its differences from its predecessor. Vanda is no longer the semi-functional clear-spoken woman she played in Ossos. Instead she emerges in all her marginality, constantly trying to squeeze a resin hit from a coated piece of tin foil, scraping what little money she can by selling lettuce door-to-door, suffering from a chronic cough and breathing difficulties and speaking in a resigned, measured rasp that occasionally gives out into a desperate but intrinsically vital eruption of rage or passion.
Aesthetically the differences are marked too. The digital photography, courtesy of Costa himself, is less crisply delineated than Machuel’s 35mm work in Ossos, but it adds an expressive bleariness to the image, complemented by occasional clouds of pixilation, and it’s no less concerned with charting the emergence of light from darkness. The takes are also considerably longer than in the previous film and Costa’s method is to fix his characters in very deliberate, occasionally blatantly artificial positions and have them recreate their speech or daily activities across large swaths of screen time. There’s no pretence of objectivity here, with Costa’s mise-en-scène intentionally taking the figures out of their natural rhythms and emphasizing the sense of recreation and performance. In Vanda’s Room may come the closest to documentary of the three Fontainhas films, but even here it’s difficult to tell how much is authentic and how much is staged entirely for the camera’s behalf.
In this second film, everything’s more depressed looking then in the relative whitewash of Ossos: The hovels are more decrepit, the drug use is on-screen, the jobs are scarcer, and the demolition of the neighborhood has already begun. Shots of bulldozers and rubble hint at upcoming forced relocations for the residents, but, at least aesthetically, they’re a breath of fresh air, an influx of light and breeze into the film’s dark, confined world. There’s little doubt that Costa’s transformation of human misery into something visually arresting is of questionable propriety, but, for the most part, it doesn’t feel exploitative. Instead, by showing us Vanda’s tear-streaked face in close-up, as the film does in an early scene, by forcing us to consider her hard, almost cruel cheekbones, her sharp point of a nose, the slight layer of fuzz on her upper lip, Costa is confronting us with a brash survivor whose very face registers as an admonition to the viewer: “I exist. I must be accounted for.”
Similarly, by allowing the subjects to go about their daily tasks in real time, the film lends them a certain dignity by deeming their unedited (though obviously curated) lives the stuff of cinema, a feeling especially evident in the case of one character, a tall, hard-luck addict who, despite living in a miserable corner, is determined to make it livable. While his friends sit at a table and discuss their history of drug-related hematomas, the man sets about nailing wrinkled posters to the wall, a scene both pathetic and peculiarly rousing. Taken as a whole these real-time glimpses into Fontainhas’s dark corners, which also include such memorable scenes as Vanda methodically trying out a couple dozen lighters before finding one that works, constitute an open-ended chunk of messy life, a dim howl offset by Costa’s distancing aesthetic, but a howl no less potent for that.
Far more than In Vanda’s Room, Costa’s 2006 film Colossal Youth is about the aesthetics of perception. Or put another way, it’s about the difference in the way that the ruined, dimly lit rooms of the nearly demolished Fontainhas look from the antiseptic whiteness of the government housing to which the residents are being relocated and what these visual differences say about the respective spaces. Six years after In Vanda’s Room, the housing development is nearly empty with only a few stragglers maintaining residence amid the rubble, but Costa’s camera lingers on. Having upgraded his digital apparatus to a model which offers a cleaner, if still suggestively smoky look, the director imparts an eerie beauty to the ruins, never more so than in an opening image consisting of a stark, almost gothic low-angle shot of a dilapidated stone structure looming under smoky black skies while a man throws furniture out of a window. The contrast couldn’t be greater than with both the lush greenery of a poetic interlude in which two characters paddle a boat down a tree-lined suburban creek and the eye-straining white glow of the government housing’s interiors the first time we see them. As one of the remaining Fontainhas holdouts explains as she stares at a wall in her apartment, a series of memories and imaginings triggered by the mottled surfaces of the room, “when they give us these white rooms, we’ll stop seeing these things.” In place of the rich suggestiveness of the old building’s textures, all the residents can look forward to is an aesthetic blankness, and it’s part of Costa’s achievement that he makes us stare into that particular void.
Although it follows a similar pattern to In Vanda’s Room, in Colossal Youth, the characters’ movements and speech are more stylized and there’s less of a sense that his actors are playing strict versions of themselves. Following an older, stooping man named Ventura as he makes his rounds across Fontainhas and the new housing development, visiting his myriad “children,” both real and spiritual, Costa places a sort of mythical poetry in the man’s mouth, most evident during his myriad repetitions of a letter to a loved one whose provenance and intended recipient aren’t made clear, but which he recites like an article of faith and which becomes the film’s lyrical chorus.
Among those whom he visits is the irrepressible Vanda, now relocated to a fresh white room. A pointed contrast from her famed older habitation, her new digs lack the same ever-palpable energy that had continually spilled in from the Fontainhas streets. Vanda herself seems considerably older and more worn down, but she’s kicked her drug habit, is now on methadone treatment and has a baby daughter. The story of that child’s birth, which the mother narrates in one breathless monologue, is the film’s choice highlight. As Vanda’s voice rings out in its measured, gravely cadence, reporting on the difficulty of the delivery, her extended post-partum stay in the hospital and her defying of hospital authorities to sneak off and see her baby, she asserts her place as the vital heart of not only the current film, in which, for the first time, she’s asked to play a supporting role, but for the whole of Costa’s remarkable body of work.
All three films appear in either restored or remastered versions. The new high-definition restoration of the 35mm Ossos brings out the work's luminous compositions and stippled textures, while the remasters of the digital movies have the effect of highlighting some of the camera's technical limitations, particularly in dimly lit indoor scenes. This is especially true of In Vanda's Room, in which pixilation is a not-uncommon feature, but these apparent limitations have their own expressive function and the image is likely pretty close to the way they originally looked. (I can only vouch for Colossal Youth, the only one of the three I've seen projected theatrically.) The sound is crisp, picking up all the incidental audio details so characteristic of the films and which do nearly as much as the visuals to evoke the trilogy's particular sense of place.
Criterion's latest deluxe set contains a typically rich assortment of extras of which the most valuable are probably the three short pieces that Pedro Costa made during his stay in Fontainhas. These include the mirror-image films Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters, which draw on the same stock of footage to tell a story of cultural dispossession from two different perspectives as well as the two-screen video installation Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female, which effectively pairs outtakes from In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth to juxtapose indoor and outdoor scenes of neighborhood life, even if this last work has something of the feel of a director seeing how many ways he can sell the same material. Also valuable are Aurélien Gerbault's full-length portrait of the director at work, All Blossoms Again, video discussions and a commentary track (on In Vanda's Room) by Costa and Jean-Pierra Gorin, and a first-rate video essay on Ossos by visual artist Jeff Wall. Add in selected-scene audio commentary on Colossal Youth, a pair of additional video interviews on Ossos, photo galleries, theatrical trailers, and a book that contains six essays, five of which were written specifically for the set, and it's more than enough to satisfy even the most demanding Costa fan.
Criterion's lavish latest proves that the company is every bit as committed in their treatment of contemporary filmmakers as they are with the old masters.