Pedro Costa’s digital video aesthetic makes light itself a character in Colossal Youth, another of the malleable souls in this forlorn world of immigrant life on the margins of Lisbon. It’s the most emotive character, too, since Costa has his non-professional actors perform line-recitations, not line-readings. While very much a movie about humans and what place the world has to offer these shunted others, Colossal Youth lingers, in static long takes, on the empty, or negative, space of the material world in which its characters find themselves rutted.
We see more hallways and stairwells and doors (and even an aqueduct)—all sorts of liminal spaces—than we see humans inhabiting them. However rigid and austere, this is an unfixed world offering little-to-no comfort: in fact, the film opens with a wide shot of a back alley, a large box of an appliance pushed out of a second-story window. This window belongs, so to speak, to Ventura and his wife, Clotilde, who is the one wrecking the home. After destroying everything, she delivers a monologue while brandishing a knife (dig how it gleams in the low light, a beacon of disaster) about her youthful strength, and her forgotten child, and all kinds of neglect (by her, of her, by the world, of the world), and retreats into the black behind her, leaving Ventura alone in a home that is not his home, shrouded in darkness. This is a forced solitude, an unchosen homelessness.
Given that part of Costa’s impetus for filming stories of the neglected Fountaínhas projects of Lisbon is a political aim to draw attention to the marginalized, and given that Fountaínhas was razed during the filming of Colossal Youth in favor of the stark, white high rise tenements seen at left, it appears easy enough to draw out an allegorical equation between Ventura and all of Fountaínhas’ abject underclass. But Costa’s project is more pointed. After his opening expulsion, Ventura sets off to find his “children”—a series of middle-aged women and men who, whether by blood or by contingency, all see Ventura as a father figure. He founded this community. His aim is to restore its sense of family: he goes so far as to let a new apartment with enough room to house all his children; he wants to build a home, even as family denies him.
A drunk with no reliable memory, Ventura’s wanderings remind me (despite many inconsistencies in this analogy) of a resigned and impotent Lear, well into madness, yet having long ago forsaken language. Words trouble Ventura internally in the present, post-Fountaínhas setting of the story, where he wears an angular black suit and a soiled, white button-down shirt. He is mostly silent. He lets others deliver the soliloquies. Words will often not hold purchase for Ventura (as when he repeatedly asks his “daughter” Vanda what “Dodettes” are in one scene; when Vanda finally tells him moist towelettes, this news, too, barely registers), just as the weight of memory, which the film’s title speaks to, proves too much for the old man to hold together: he refers to the Clotilde of the opening as his children’s mother, or maybe somebody like her; he finds the wrong doors for the wrong women (daughters and lovers), mixing up identities; he appears shocked that Vanda’s husband is his friend from the work shop.
In a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the picture, and intercut with other flashbacks to a yet-earlier and almost-utopic time, we see, or rather we hear, Ventura (here wearing a blue shirt, his head wrapped in a bandage) reciting a love letter, as if by duty, to his companion, Lento, who works as this picture’s fool to Ventura’s Lear. Ventura’s ritual recitation seems to say, perhaps, that if he repeats the letter enough times, he will teach it to Lento, and it will sustain them; or it may return them to the love and hope, to the idea of home, it speaks of. In this past, spent mostly in a shack on a hill in refuge from the April 25th revolution of 1974, Lento never learns the letter by heart like Ventura. Their shack is never a site of warmth, and they fall apart, just as Fountaínhas falls apart outside their thin walls. The last sequence of this timeline shows us Lento, in an attempt to leach electricity to heat their shack, falling off a ladder, apart from Ventura, who simultaneously sheds his bandage inside the shack. (Chinua Achebe springs to mind, but instead of locusts, here we have the threat of predatory police descending at random.)
When Lento and Ventura meet again near the close of the picture, they hold hands in another former home now burnt and empty, talking of another fall Lento took, and of their nostalgia for an earlier optimism, for their family, for their old fear of death. But their conversation is not about resignation. Lento now knows the letter and recites it for Ventura, completing a kind of circle, pushing them forward, oddly, by a reflection on the past. For if we understand Colossal Youth, in a basic sense, as a film about a father seeking his children (corporeally and spiritually), the film should be seen as Ventura’s perpetual, ever-evolving opportunity for reflection as to better understand his story and the story of the community-as-family. I say perpetual because Ventura seems, like the film he personifies, stuck in a loop, running through memories, unsure of his place in this slum-maze of time and space. The film ends with Ventura lying on Vanda’s bed, half awake and half dreaming, half-assed looking after her daughter, who watches TV while Ventura watches the ceiling. It’s a return to a home, to some kind of idea of family, yes, but it’s still off-kilter. This world won’t allow for final resolutions. Yet, unlike Lear, and despite the decay surrounding him, Ventura seems like he will persist in his loop of light, of unfixed words and locales and families.
House contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy. He will be graduating college, finally, in 2008: he’s excited.