One look at the appalling slum where Pedro Costa has set In Vanda’s Room seems comment enough. It’s a filthy, crumbling, aesthetically-nil nightmare that one assumes can only oppress the lives of the junkies, laborers and other residents who live there. But there is life in this Lisbon hellhole, and it’s being encroached upon by the “enlightened” folks who have deigned to clear the place without thinking of where the residents can go. This displacement disguised as renewal sums up Costa’s tragic sense of irony. His film is about people who live painful, desperate lives and yet refuse to budge from the fates they may or may not have chosen but decide to play out either way—people poised on the brink of self-pity who never fall off into the abyss, and who carry on in the face of addiction, invisibility and a general ennui that mere social realism can’t contain.
The Vanda of the title is Vanda Duarte, a drug addict with whom Costa worked on his previous film, Ossos. Duarte objected to the way she was being directed and, according to the director (who attended my screening at the Cinematheque Ontario), did the exact opposite of what she was asked. But instead of casting her out, Costa incorporated her into his working methods. Instead of the “professional” 35mm production that was Ossos, his next production would be with a small digital camera and a skeleton crew that worked with Vanda, her family and many of her neighbors over a period of two years. And shortly after the collaborators started work, the slum clearance began, threatening the residents and lending another semi-documentary wrinkle to the eventual film.
So what do we find? Vanda is introduced to us with her sister Zita, both furiously smoking smack, coughing and spitting out the no-doubt-horrific end product of the drug from their lungs. There’s no rush to judgment, no arrows stating the source of their addiction or the cause of their (apparent) misery: just a couple of people getting high and not worrying about the consequences. All around them in the neighborhood, people are acting similarly, shooting up while sharing dirty needles, engaging in extremely low-level means of eking out a living (selling individual flowers or a box of wilted cabbage door-to-door) and of course, talking, talking, talking. People are of course scrambling to find new living arrangements, but mostly they live their static lives while the housing gets taken down piece by piece.
“Static”, as it turns out, is a good way to describe the set-ups in which we view the action. With few exceptions (i.e. the random shots of the slum’s exteriors), the scenes generally involve one long take of (mostly) two people talking—though this is far from a hands-off technique. In fact, the shots are rigorously composed: Costa proves highly adept in using natural and/or simple lighting, and uses the space surrounding the figures to bleak effect. The resulting tableaux capture the persistent ennui of the lives in question and the feeling of time dragging on. Nobody seems in a hurry to get anywhere in this movie; there’s really nowhere to go, and the feelings are that of a nothing existence that stretches on, but is paradoxically threatened by the encroachment of the demolition process, which is about to destroy what little existence there is left.
How does one define a life under such circumstances? The company lives on the knife-edge between total despair and vague acceptance. The film’s most wrenching scene features Vanda talking to a childhood friend—also an addict—in her room. He insists that life has dealt him a bad blow, but Vanda will have none of it. She insists that they chose this life, that this is the life that they wanted—otherwise, why would they be here? These two poles are what lift the film out of a distanced social-realist tract and give it its punch. Costa has not handily categorized the experience of this place and these people, and allows for the infinitude of whys and what-ifs that have led the characters to this point. The wretched look of the slum is deceiving: there is life here, no matter how wretched, and it deserves its own bedrock away from the whims of civic-planning disasters like the one about to raze these dwellings to the ground.
To be sure, the film’s total commitment to the tedium of these lives can grate. However apt a metaphor the static-camera, static-life approach, one cries out for a little movement and a little struggle. A certain monotony settles over the film at times, and though one never wavers from a nominal interest in the subjects, one wishes for a little more jolt or variety to the film. Three hours of it gives plenty of opportunity for longueurs and, while the aesthetic reasoning is sound in theory, it has its liabilities in practice. I wouldn’t ask that Costa drum up some sensational ’drama’ to juice up the proceedings (like the knucklehead in the post-film Q&A who asked why there was no sex), but aside from a few cutaways to the incredible shrinking neighborhood, the pictures we see lack visual texture. Costa is so focused on one thing that he fails to offer more than a single view, and there are times the film suffers for it.
But leavening the dull stretches are moments of anguish and revelation unlike any others in cinema. Costa justifies the faith of his heroine and her friends; whatever else the movie does, it commits totally to a particular way of life without a whiff of cultural tourism or heroin chic. In Vanda’s Room offers decisive evidence why Costa has earned his small cult of personality. He deglamourizes the proceedings without demeaning them; he films degradation while restoring dignity. Audiences are few who will put up with his uncompromising aesthetic, but those with the fortitude to take it will be rewarded many times over.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.