PRINT September 2006


THE SINGLE MOST SHOCKING INSTANT in any film at Cannes this year was not Paul Dawson sucking back a sluice of his own cum in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, Sergi López suturing his freshly flayed face with a home sewing kit in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, or the assorted sub-Borowczyk provocations in György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, including a hard-on that doubles as a blowtorch, a speed-eating contest that ends in voluminous puking, giant cats devouring the entrails of their exploded owner, and the autotaxidermy that serves as the film’s flesh-abasing finale. None of those scandal-mongering moments could match the sheer disorienting power of the sudden shot of a painting—Rubens’s Flight into Egypt, hanging in Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian—in Pedro Costa’s Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth). Interpolated late into the film’s seemingly endless succession of conversations declaimed in dim, decrepit rooms, the startling appearance of this Dutch Baroque masterpiece in its hushed, luxe setting packed a visual and tonal wallop—shot transition as sensory assault. (Maurice Pialat was a pro at such vertiginous edits.) But the multitudes who had fled the press screening an hour earlier during the film’s first extended monologue were not there to savor Costa’s formal coup, Youth being the kind of measured, demanding work to which Cannes is increasingly inimical. Compared with Costa’s film, much else at the festival was pandering and blandishment.

The forty-eight-year-old Portuguese director could hardly have been surprised by the critical scorn; his supporters have long been sneered at as glum cultists, po-faced devotees of his particular brand of Lusitanian pornomiseria. Costa fits less comfortably with such celebrated compatriots as Manoel de Oliveira and João César Monteiro than with the pan-European band of miserablists that includes Hungary’s Béla Tarr, Germany’s Fred Kelemen, and Lithuania’s Sharunas Bartas. Divergent in vision, they nevertheless share a propensity for the long take and tableau structure; a fondness for desolate landscapes and haunted, life-battered faces; and a Dostoyevskian sense of existence as hell.

Costa took some time to arrive at his stringent style, leaving behind the romantic poetics of his impressive feature debut, O Sangue (The Blood, 1989), a black-and-white Traumspiel with music by Stravinsky and traces of Les Enfants terribles, Night of the Hunter, and Spirit of the Beehive in its hermetic tale of two brothers on the run with a kindergarten teacher, and the Jacques Tourneur-influenced reverie of Casa de Lava (Down to Earth, 1994), set largely in the Cape Verde Islands. But in Ossos (Bones, 1997), the first film in the trilogy that Colossal Youth concludes, this dreamy, allusive approach gives way to a Bressonian arsenal—elliptical editing; lack of establishing shots; little nondiegetic music; inexpressive nonprofessional actors delivering uninflected line readings; sound employed to replace image and to suggest an offscreen world; and a precise, materialist treatment of objects, bodies, and space—which Costa applies to a decidedly un-Bressonian subject and setting: poor, forlorn lives in the suburban slums of Lisbon.

The very title, Ossos, shorn of even the article that O Sangue employed, suggests something of the skeletal austerity it strives for. Long before the Dardennes’ L’Enfant (2005), Costa tells the tale of a baby born to a suicidal teenage mother whose equally young, blank-faced boyfriend uses the child as a prop for begging and then tries to sell it—first to a nurse who has shown him great kindness, and then to a prostitute. (He stashes the sweet-natured baby under the bed when he has sex with the hooker.) So insistent and condensed is the film’s sense of desperation, it reminds one of the bleakest of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, in which the heroine sums up her existence in six words: “Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.” The baby’s mother tries to gas herself not once but twice, the first time with her child, and her closest friend, a cleaning lady, also uses a gas stove to exact revenge on the father.

Costa’s blocky compositions and elliptical editing, which sometimes leaves one scrambling across chasms of excised incident and ambiguous relationships, suggest severity, as does his partiality for Bressonian effects—tight shots of hands, locks, and doorways, the camera sometimes holding for a beat or two after a figure has departed the frame, offscreen sound indicating contiguous space. But Ossos is more sensual than ascetic, more doleful than denying. The soulful close-ups Costa accords his abject characters verge on the beatific—the soft, long-haired father with his faraway gaze evokes one of Bellini’s musing Madonnas—and the exquisite lighting turns two symmetrical shots of a photograph, some keys, and crumpled cigarette packs lying on a red dresser into colorist still lifes. Costa is also not beyond bravura: He takes obvious pleasure in a long, tricky tracking shot of the father striding down the street, and twice uses extreme shallow focus to flaunty effect. His raw verism sometimes lapses into strain-making coincidence to establish connections between characters, and he has not yet totally surrendered the use of professional actors (Inês de Medeiros as the prostitute, for instance). In Ossos, then, Costa still holds close his passport for what Godard called “this beautiful land of narrative.”

Costa abandons that land altogether in his next film, No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), his masterpiece and one of the most extraordinary films of the last decade. Reportedly unhappy with Ossos, Costa returned to its shantytown setting, which was now being demolished, to tell the story of one of his actresses, Vanda Duarte, who played the vengeful friend in the previous film. Costa’s initial plan was to set the entirety of No Quarto da Vanda in her eponymous bedroom, but he wisely decided to extend its purview to the entire neighborhood of Fontaínhas, a claustral world of junkies, drunks, and the otherwise marginal, under siege by bulldozers and jackhammers and soon set to disappear. The three-hour portrait that resulted has a dense plenitude; it is both contained and choral, minimal in its means but prodigious in its vision. Dropping the affectations of Ossos, Costa arrives at his own rigorously empathetic style, exacting, intimate, and intensely observant. Shot entirely with a fixed, digital camera—figures move in, out of, and through the frame, and whole sequences feature the offscreen voice of a character who is obviously proximate but bodily absent from the delimited image—and photographed using only available light, even in the darkest of the slum’s grottolike dwellings, No Quarto da Vanda achieves the austerity Ossos aspired to. It also contradicts the easy despair of that earlier film with the simplest of found truths: Life may treat these people with “nothing but contempt,” as one character says, but in their tenuous connections with one another in a world that is literally coming down around them, they assert their worth—their kindness and dignity.

In her fly-infested room, Vanda and her sister Zita smoke heroin, occasionally scraping smack residue from the pages of an old phone book. Addicts from way back, they smoke and scrape and smoke throughout the film, but also manage to function; Vanda, for instance, makes a living hawking cabbages and lettuce door-to-door. After a couple of references to a woman who tried to sell her baby, then dumped it dead in a bin (one infers this is Tina, the desperate mother from Ossos), the film all but abandons any semblance of conventional narrative and proceeds to accumulate seemingly random scenes of Vanda, her family and neighbors, and men from the quarter, punctuated by Ozu-influenced “pillow shots,” interstitial scenes of everyday life in Fontaínhas. The splintering, smashing, and grinding of the infernal machines of demolition sometimes accompany these images in the film’s rich soundscape, a constant thin-wall din of dogs, kids, and too-loud televisions, of squabbling, coughing, and complaint. (Costa typically avoids nondiegetic music but has a fine ear for “accidents” of ironic counterpoint; among the pieces one fleetingly hears in Vanda’s squalid world are “Memories” from Cats, SNAP!’s “I’ve got the power” sting, and that most gorgeous of Bach arias, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,” from the end of the B-minor Mass.)

No Quarto da Vanda is commonly classified as a documentary, which is convenient but hard to countenance. The startling intimacy with which Costa captures his characters—and they are characters, even if they are playing themselves—is hard-won, the result of many rehearsals. Costa befriended and worked with members of the Fontaínhas community for many years, and the naturalness and candor with which his “actors” give themselves up to his (small, unobtrusive) camera clearly result from that solidarity. Moments are not stolen but practiced, captured, then organized in a fashion not so far from the narrative ellipses of Ossos; scattered bits of story gradually cohere, become clear, such as the imprisonment of Vanda’s sister Nela, the death of a drug dealer called Geny, the fate of Pedro, an addict who has gone clean. The latter is first seen early in the film, his body tamped tightly into the lower right hand of the frame where he clutches a blaze of red and orange flowers, in a shot that seems inexplicable, arbitrary, unconnected to any other image or story, until he suddenly reappears about an hour later in a long and touching sequence in which he and Vanda discuss their asthma. Few documentaries proceed in such an intentionally fragmentary manner.

Costa is also clearly uninterested in any kind of documentary “look” as a fake signifier of authenticity. Working digitally for the first time, which allows freedom but limits precision, Costa labors to ensure that his lighting and compositions are pristine, overtly beautiful: crutches propped against a wall, gleaming in scant light; a naked man washing in the midst of demolition, sheets of steam unfurling from his lanky brown body; a cubist arrangement of two faces, using intersecting mirrors; a poetic montage of deserted rooms; a red plastic bin full of expired lighters nestled in a bright green bag; and a stunning juxtaposition of two blue cubes of light, one a flickering television, the other the open door of a distant room, floating in domestic darkness. Though much gets lost in the gloaming of Costa’s shantytown interiors—faces are sometimes barely discernible in the obscurity—he manages to avoid digital murk, turning a sequence of junkies shooting up by candlelight, for instance, into a lower-depths version of Georges de La Tour.

Unlike Ossos, any despair in No Quarto da Vanda would be earned, given what we see of the stasis and poverty of these lives. Though one man proclaims, “The bad never die. It’s the innocent who die,” and Vanda herself says, “We live in a really poor country, and the saddest of all,” despair seems a luxury in their harsh day-to-day existence. Costa’s scrupulously nonjudgmental manner treats drug addiction as nothing more than fact; a man continues to clean his shanty, a needle dangling from his arm, while another casually says he will take out the garbage after he shoots up. The worst that heroin seems to have caused Vanda are her spasms of asthmatic coughing. No Quarto is also not without humor. A junkie nicknamed Blondie is forever tidying his hair, while another complains about climbing five flights of stairs to beg from an old woman, only to be given two yogurts; all the way down, he prays that they are at least strawberry flavored. Two druggies chatter over their hematomas—“I was a walking blood clot,” one says—like homemakers comparing recipes. Vanda and Zita’s mother chides them about straightening their rooms, as if they were Cindy and Marcia Brady, and they bicker back between tokes on their smack-loaded smokes. In the final sequence, Zita waves a tiny pistol and talks about how she saw an actress draw a similar weapon from between her giant tits in Police Academy. But the laughs don’t last. Zita soon lies stoned on the bed, the jackhammering that is demolishing her and Vanda’s world growing closer and louder. She rouses herself from her stupor to play with a blind child, after which a protracted shot of the stump of a demolished building gives way to black screen—a sudden, engulfing darkness in which one imagines the inhabitants of Fontaínhas turning into phantoms.

In Colossal Youth, those inhabitants have been relocated to the new Lisbon neighborhood of Casal da Boba, and many live in decent low-cost housing, including Vanda. Now on methadone, Vanda still suffers from racking asthma, and the high, wiry whine of her voice no doubt contributed to the mass press exodus in Cannes when she launched into a long monologue early in the film about the birth of her child. Colossal Youth belongs not to her, however, but to Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean laborer whose wife—her name, Clotilde, is an echo of the character Vanda played in Ossos—deserts him at the beginning of the film. A lost soul, the fittingly named Ventura goes on an odyssey, wandering from home to hovel, room to room, listening to the stories of various “children” whose actual relationship to him is never made clear. The choral quality of No Quarto is amplified in Youth, the many voices of the sad and dispossessed who tell Ventura their tales something like primitive polyphony whose cantus firmus is Ventura’s oft-repeated tune about what he would do to entice Clotilde back. (For this, Costa draws on a letter sent from Buchenwald by French Surrealist Robert Desnos, also an inspiration for Casa de Lava.) Contrary to the ironic promise of the film’s Portuguese title, Juventude em marcha—a phrase exclaimed in a rare moment of joy in Casa de Lava—it seems quite evident that youth will never be on the march in Casal da Boba.

Each of Ventura’s so-called children brought his or her tale to Costa—many involving sundered families or vanished chances—and, filming 320 hours of footage (surely a record for shooting ratio!) over fifteen months, he rigorously rehearsed the players, sometimes doing thirty takes to achieve the delivery he desired. (In this, he is like Bresson, though Bresson’s aim was utter neutrality, Costa’s a kind of stylized naturalism.) Costa retains the visual approach of No Quarto but restricts it even further. Shot with a fixed camera and available light, the takes in Youth often run to many minutes. (Costa’s fondness for Bresson-like close-ups of door locks, hands, and truncated bodies returns from Ossos.) Once in a while, Costa leaves in mistakes, as when Ventura accidentally calls Vanda Zita—Zita, we discover, has died since No Quarto—and he likes to let the camera register inconsequential but pleasing details, such as a row of bottles rattled by Ventura’s heavy tread. A similar mix of chance and rigor is applied to the audio track, a dense accretion of found sound recorded on DAT with one or two microphones: an unnerving wind, the assaultive shriek of a saw, gas hissing into an apartment, the thwack of playing cards slapped on a table.

Even more than No Quarto da Vanda, Colossal Youth is intent on beauty. In one way, the film is about light and its lack; in its roughly hewn or peeling interiors, pale, barely penetrant light shifts, pools, recedes, and Costa draws attention to its effect by repeating compositions in different kinds of luminance. (In No Quarto, he uses an eclipse to make a similar emphasis.) In the comparatively few exterior shots, harsh sunlight rakes, breaking white apartment buildings into constructivist planes. When Costa says that the films of Mikio Naruse influenced Youth, one thinks first of the hardscrabble, back-alley lives of some of Naruse’s trapped characters (though they are, next to Costa’s, comparatively comfortable). But one is then reminded of art historian André Scala’s insight—that Naruse’s quotidian cinema is akin to seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting and its formal parameters. For all their decrepitude, Costa’s lovingly shot enclosures, the light source often from a window or door frame left, seem updated versions of those same Dutch interiors; his close-ups could be called tronies. Costa’s compositions—Paulo in his hospital bed, for example—are often low slung, with characters situated in the lower third of the frame, a vastness of white wall above them, most strikingly in the shots of Vanda, Ventura, and Vanda’s husband at a dining table with a filigreed chandelier delicately securing the upper center of the image. (The odd, out-of-place globe of the world behind Vanda is very Vermeer.)

Costa made a brilliant documentary, Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Has Your Hidden Smile Gone? 2001), about the filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet editing their film Sicilia! and the influence of their materialist aesthetic is everywhere apparent in Colossal Youth, certainly in its rigorous images, shot in the squarish, classical aspect of 1.33—literally a misfit in contemporary cinema in that few theaters are equipped to project this outmoded ratio anymore. The monologues in Youth seem to draw on recent Straub-Huillet films such as Operai, Contadini (2001), in which Italian peasants stand and declaim in a landscape. And the brief, urban arcadian shots of a park, trees, water, sun, birds, a highway that Costa interpolates into his procession of interiors seem less Ozuean here than in No Quarto; they more resemble the scenes of sea and scudding clouds that Straub-Huillet interject into the eighteenth-century interiors of their Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968).

Some critics at Cannes complained that Colossal Youth, besides being a bore full of unappealing people and an act of high-art slumming, was actually anti-cinema. No actors, no camera movement, no music, ergo no cinema, the reasoning went. Patience is at a premium in Cannes, derision the easiest reaction, so Costa’s great work was, predictably, mocked or ignored. But Ventura clings more tenaciously to memory than any other character from Cannes, and no other film at the festival came close to the emotion summoned by a sequence in which he sits huddled, his face away from us, listening to an old portable record player, or by the exquisite gesture of his stilling the hand of a man frantically scratching the surface of a table so that they can sit and contemplate their fates. In the film’s unforgettable final long shot, Ventura lies on a bed as he tends Vanda’s baby. We are back “in Vanda’s room,” Costa consciously echoing the final shot of Zita and child in No Quarto. A lesser director would turn the old male and baby into an “ages of man” tableau or “life goes on” platitude, but Costa’s final long take simply accumulates a sense of immobility and exhaustion, of a life suspended in the past, smiting with such quiet might that in the end Youth seems truly colossal, an arte povera epic.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.