“It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises—the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations.”—John Ford
If cinema resembles architecture more than any of the other arts, then Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth makes for an intriguing case study. Shot over two years with a non-professional cast in the Cape Verde immigrant slum of Fontainhas just outside Lisbon, Costa’s film is a poetic if perplexing work that turns a run-down neighborhood into a psychic landscape of light and shadow reflecting the liminal lives of its inhabitants.
Both beautifully raw and willfully abstruse, the film invites any number of approaches to understanding it. Those in the know may refer to the two previous installments of Costa’s trilogy on life in Fontainhas, Bones (1997) and Vanda’s Room (2000). Some may compare Costa’s compositional gifts with those of his Portugese predecessors Manoel de Oliveira or João César Monteiro, or cite his association with Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet, who share his penchant for recitative dialogues and a meticulously formalist approach to realism. Or one might find themselves echoing Mark Peranson’s ebullient praise in his write up for Cinema-scope: “This is so out of the zeitgeist I don’t know where to begin.”
I beg to differ, mass walk-outs at Cannes be damned. As challenging as this film is, at first glance it falls into much of the same stylistic territory as a dominant strain of festival cinema that relies heavily on static long takes and a non-demonstrative approach to performance. It’s a style that I am finding increasingly exhausted and exhausting, which may be why I at times resisted Colossal Youth, suspecting it of defaulting to an international cinematic house style for universal ennui. When I find myself at such an impasse, Ford’s analogy of the filmmaker-as-architect feels particularly apt because it brings the mind back to focusing on the specific, unique relationship the creative mind wishes to have with the life in this location.
Nearly every scene of Colossal Youth’s 155 minutes features Ventura, the name of both the character and the man playing him. He’s a 60-ish Cape Verdean whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, which is presented in Costa’s characteristically elliptical manner: a wide shot of furniture being tossed out of a third story apartment followed by an infuriated monologue delivered by Ventura’s as-yet-unidentified wife, a knife gleaming in her hand. Ventura spends the remainder of the film shuttling from one outpost of the impoverished neighborhood to the next, visiting a revolving series of younger inhabitants. None of his relationships to these people, or their relationships to each other, are clarified: some refer to him as Papa, most notably a younger, lighter-skinned woman named Vanda (Vanda Duarte), who offers him a bed to lie upon as she delivers lengthy monologues in front of a television that never seems to shut off.
Holed up nights with a young man in a shack, Ventura takes over the talking duties, helping his companion memorize a long, eloquent love letter to give to his estranged wife. But in some of these scenes, Ventura wears a head bandage and a different shirt than the stained white dress shirt he has in every other scene. It is unclear how much of the film is in flashback and even if one were to parse out past and present tense using visual or informational cues, it is all shot in the same impassive tone of the here and now. The film’s sense of time taking place out of time may be one way that it reflects the mindset of its protagonist, a recovering drunk who admits to a lifetime of sleeping in strange homes after all-night binges. In that sense, any of the younger people he meets could very well be his children, but the film undermines such literal readings.
Similarly, it is never clear how much these characters’ experiences are based on the actual experiences of the actors. By jamming together fiction and non-fiction elements and discarding familiar markers (i.e. father, daughter) to describe characters, the film achieves a bracing if confounding immediacy, as the audience must constantly assess and re-assess relationships based on each nuance of their interactions. The characters don’t seem to share this much anxiety, but that may be because they are used to a lifetime of comings and goings. In one scene, Ventura visits Vanda just as she is about to go to work—leaving her five year old daughter unattended—and she gratefully lets him in as an impromptu babysitter (cut to a shot of him snoozing while the daughter gives the most horrifying lost child gaze since Jean-Pierre Léaud).
While the film’s temporality can be challenging to the point of confounding, it is Costa’s treatment of space that more immediately impresses, if only as an object lesson in Ford’s maxim of being creative with one’s limitations. The film is shot in some of the most depressingly barren interiors to be found outside of post-Soviet cinema, not only in the burned out slum houses, but in the new government-subsidized apartment that Ventura is scoping out, presumably to reunite all of his “children”. The blinding, unadorned white walls of the new building are as oppressive as the dim, stained domiciles found elsewhere. Vanda’s unfurbished housing project residence is as much a prison as a home; a gaudily ornate mini-chandelier dangling from her dining room ceiling looks like the welfare service interior designer’s idea of a bad joke.
One of Costa’s prime achievements is in giving these locations and their inhabitants a profound dignity by virtue of his lensing. At times he does this perversely by hiding them in shadow, giving his subjects the chiaroscuro treatment as they offer rambling ruminations from their literal inner depths. Costa’s economy of production achieves a brilliant consistency as virtually every scene is lit from a single source (in some scenes it’s the reflection of light on a single object, most memorably a flower). His use of DV is another testament to the existential properties of present-day digital imaging: the hard lines that surround figures in video set them defiantly against their oppressive backgrounds. The sense of these peoples’ hereness is so hyper-real at times as to become surreal; they aren’t so much characters as they are visual artifacts of a place and time. And here is where the film’s endless sense of time pays off: as incidents and interactions accumulate, these unassuming characters amass in weight, to the point that late in the film, in a scene where Ventura and Vanda sit quietly in a room, their hunched bodies seem to emanate so much unspoken pain into the sterile space surrounding them.
As much as I’ve tried to make a case for the logic behind the film’s more puzzling elements, after one viewing I am not fully persuaded that Colossal Youth’s many fragments cohere into a masterful whole. According to Peranson, Costa spent two years shooting 320 hours of footage, and no doubt he established strong relationships with his actor-subjects in that time, but that still does not discern whether the film’s seemingly loose structure is a vivid reflection of the dissolute lives playing out on screen, or is simply dissolute, indulgent filmmaking. Yet I have no reservations in lauding the film for the specific and innovative approaches it takes toward depicting a way of life that is usually portrayed, when it is portrayed at all, without attentiveness or empathy. It is in the attempt to create a house of cinema from the derelict moments of these people on screen that I find Colossal Youth pulsing with purpose.