Letters From Fontainhas: Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth
Dir: Pedro Costa
1997; 2000; 2006
Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
The Criterion Collection has done film lovers the world over a great service by releasing Letters From Fontainhas, a collection of three films by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa. All three are set in and around the titular slums, located on the outskirts of Lisbon. Heretofore a strictly legendary figure in America (his films having yet to be given the benefit of proper distribution in this country), the simultaneous appearance of three of his major works has been nothing short of revelatory. An artist of the very highest caliber, the mere existence of Pedro Costa on the world stage serves to give credence to the notion that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the cinematic arts are still as vital, as innovative and as crucial a force for documenting and critiquing this ever-changing and accelerating global society of ours as ever.
Made over the course of nearly a decade, the trilogy exhibits a remarkable continuity in terms of subject matter and tone while at the same time overleaping itself in startling, quantum-like jumps, each film transcending the last in sheer scope and ambition and daring formal complexities. This pathway parallels the journey of the filmmaker himself. Originally entering the Fontainhas district as an outsider, Ossos is the work of an accomplished, talented professional, a director operating within the well-established European, auteurist mode. Filmed on 35mm and with all the trappings of a large studio crew, the movie, while situated on the minimalist, Bressonian end of the spectrum to be sure, still displays all of the standard, audience-expected elements: fictional characters emoting within a dramatic plot, exciting incidents, tracking shots, artificial lighting, etc. By the time of In Vanda’s Room three years later, all of this was gone. Costa had become enamored with the people and traditions of Fontainhas, befriending many of its residents. He decided that he had done them a great disservice by invading their community with his large, military-like crew and so was determined to minimize the effects of his presence from then on. In Vanda’s Room has been called the first film of the 21st Century, and it’s easy to see why: by breaking so radically with his past methods and, by extension, with those of the previous century of film art, Costa was able to create a new way of doing things, a new way of thinking about film, fit for a brave new millennium in which traditionally marginalized people will become increasingly relevant. Using the new digital video format, Costa served as a virtual one man crew, only bringing in a sound engineer at a later stage in order to better capture all the dynamic, teeming chaos of the city streets. Obliterating the boundaries between fiction and documentary, the film, with its static framing, easy, repetitive rhythms, natural lighting and deep, richly textured colors aims for total effacement, thinning and blending and merging itself within the streams of life flowing through the narrow streets and alleyways of the ghetto. Costa had now become one of them. With his next film, released six years later, Costa had disappeared altogether, along with Fontainhas itself. Colossal Youth is a haunted film, a film of stark, mythic resonances that is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is the culmination and a recapitulation of all of the themes and many of the characters running through the previous entries in the series, and with it Costa has forcefully declared himself to be a path-breaker and a torchbearer. Colossal Youth is sure to be a touchstone, if not a blueprint, for all serious, forward-looking films and filmmakers in the decade ahead.
Ossos means “bones” and it is an appropriate title for such a stark, bleakly oppressive work. Situated largely within the Estrela d’Africa slum in the neighborhood of Fontainhas, an almost medieval-like citadel populated primarily by transplanted Cape Verdean immigrants and the lowest dregs of the poor, native Portuguese underclass, the story follows a suicidal teenager, Tina (Maria Lipkina) as she attempts to come to terms with the recent birth of a son. Not being able to care for the infant herself, she pawns the child off on its father (Nuno Vaz). Things rapidly go from bad to worse as he lugs the baby through the streets of Lisbon like a sack of garbage, begging for money and food. Eventually he does come to care for the boy, yet still attempts to sell him to whomever is willing to pay. One of these is Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), a middle-class nurse living in downtown Lisbon. Slowly she gets drawn into the story of Fontainhas and its inhabitants, much like Costa himself during the making of the film. Acting as protector and guardian to all of the other characters is Clotilda (Vanda Duarte), a young woman of complex sympathies and startling presence who would act as Costa’s amanuensis and muse throughout the rest of the trilogy.
The film is beautifully shot and composed by cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel (who worked on Bresson’s L’Argent) and the narrow streets and corridors of Fontainhas are used wonderfully. Everything is close-up and confined and the characters appear boxed-in, trapped within the walls of their dismal lives. The hues and textures of dilapidated walls are lovingly and tenderly rendered by Costa’s painterly eye. The soundscape, too, here as in the next two films, takes on a weight and a density on par with the images. The attention paid to off-screen sounds and dialogue gives the picture a three-dimensional, musical quality that serves to situate the characters within a dimension of clear reality.
In Vanda’s Room takes its name from the actress, Vanda Duarte. As the middle film in the trilogy, it is in many ways the odd man out, offset by its bookend companions. Take the title, for instance. Whereas “Ossos” and “Colossal Youth” are titles used for their poetic significance (the latter being the name of an album by the band, Young Marble Giants), the title of this film, “In Vanda’s Room” is exactly literal. Much of the film takes place within the sweaty, filthy, bug-infested confines of Vanda Duarte’s bedroom. And while this is not a strict documentary, it is also not a fictional film in any traditional sense. Costa went to great pains to follow the daily routines of his characters. In the case of Vanda and her sister Zita, this means sitting in bed for much of the day, smoking heroin, gossiping and bickering. Most of the other characters whose lives we follow are junkies, too, and Costa is unstinting in his observation of the dreary details of the drug addict’s life. “Coughing and spitting in the junk-sick dawn,” to use a phrase from William S. Burroughs, Vanda and company are never judged, never condemned. But Costa doesn’t let us inside, either. He eschews psychological depth in favor of the aestheticized gaze of the painter. And what a painter he is! Using minimal light sources to produce frames of great tender beauty worthy of the old masters, the infrequent close-ups of desperate, dirty, drug-ravished faces are some of the most beautiful in all of cinema.
Interspersed throughout the film are shots and sounds of the destruction of Fontainhas, a government-sponsored “improvement” project that was underway concurrently with Costa’s filming. The sense of desperation is palpable as the residents’ lives are visibly stripped away. Costa, determined to capture this way of life, this community, these people and their traditions before they are swept away forever, becomes a sort of ad hoc historian. Because despite the poverty and the many obstacles and deprivations facing the residents of Fontainhas, this life and this community is their own. “It’s the life we want, this life of drugs,” says Vanda at one point. At least it is a life under some sort of autonomous control.
That autonomy has been completely taken away by the time of Colossal Youth. The destruction of the neighborhood is now nearly complete. All that remains are isolated buildings and facades, as unreal-looking as film sets. Most of the residents have been relocated to a nearby housing project, a series of gleaming, tall white boxes, set ominously against an empty sky. Enter Ventura, the hero of this mythical tale. Both the name of the actor and the character he portrays (of course none of the actors in these films are “actors” in the traditional sense), Ventura is Costa’s great discovery. A face that was born to be filmed, a body meant to be seen onscreen, Ventura is an instantly iconic character in the history of film. A Cape Verdean immigrant with haunted eyes and an enigmatic, young/old face, Ventura drifts through the film like a zombie, or a ghost, his brown skin juxtaposed against the vast vertical white of the high-rises that have replaced Fontainhas.
As he floats along like a character out of Beckett, Ventura visits with his many “children.” It is not clear just how many children he does have, if any, but the men and women he comes to see accept him for the most part as their “father.” One of these is Vanda. Now married with a child, Vanda is off the junk but in many ways in worse shape than before. Only six years have passed since the last film, but Vanda has seemingly aged 20. She remains all day in her new, white box of an apartment, staring blankly at her new addiction – the television screen. Always angled slightly out of frame, the flickering blue lights that pass across Vanda’s face serve to show the level of alienation that the people of Fontainhas are facing in this new, clean white world. And Ventura realizes this most of all. He knows that the old traditions are dying, and that he is alive only to bear witness and mourn the passing of an age.
These three films, these letters from a lost world, are Pedro Costa’s gift to us. He sees with clear eyes, and imbues his characters with an inner light of pure dignity. I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to experience these wonderful films.