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Seeing Pedro Costa 

Dreaming with open eyes

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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“We live in a really poor country, and the saddest of them all.”

—Dialogue from In Vanda’s Room

When the Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, a nearly three-hour movie about the displaced residents of a gutted Lisbon housing slum, emerged as the most divisive film — among critics, audiences, reportedly even the jury — in the competition of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the fracas underscored something that many admirers of Costa’s work had already realized: namely, that the debate over Costa (whose six feature films will be screened this weekend at REDCAT) is no ordinary case of some people “liking” a certain filmmaker and others not. Rather, Costa is a kind of cause — a mission — that you either believe in or don’t.

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This is not to say that Costa is one thing and all the rest of cinema something else. Costa himself would be the first to say that the greatest cinematic achievements are eternal and unwavering and that he is deeply indebted to the masters who preceded him. There is — though those who dismiss Costa are loath to admit it — a strong and evident affinity in his work for Chaplin, Bresson, Ozu, and those other directors (not that there are so many) who have actively worked to free movies from their literary and theatrical shackles, who have aspired toward another mode of expression closer to painting or poetry. This is filmmaking that doesn’t merely reflect reality, but which sees past it, to the very essence of human desire and suffering and, finally, a kind of spiritual grace. Indeed, to watch the films of Pedro Costa is to behold a cinema at once ineffably modern yet unassailably classical, and that is but one of their glorious paradoxes.

Costa, who was born in Lisbon in 1959, is primarily a purveyor of the unseen, although not in the sense of lurid secrets lurking beneath genteel surfaces. Consider the scene early on in Costa’s third feature-length film, Bones (Ossos) (1997), in which the residents of Lisbon’s Fontainhas slum beg for pennies in a crowded street. They do so to the utter obliviousness of nearly all who pass by, but we in the audience cannot remain oblivious; no matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid the characters’ penetrating gaze. Yes, Costa makes movies about the poor and the indigent, the displaced and the destitute, but he does so not with the imperiousness of the privileged, liberal-minded movie director wanting to rub the audience’s nose in the misery of the starving class, nor with the piousness of the neo-realist who seeks to exalt his characters to martyrdom. In fact, to imply that Costa imposes any sort of social or aesthetic agenda on his subjects would be a mistake. For, in a Costa film, it is not the director who is speaking through his subjects, but rather they who are speaking through him.

The lives Costa chooses to film play out against a landscape of cramped, darkened rooms illuminated by single unshaded bulbs or bits of sunlight piercing through cracks in walls. It is a place where parents reject their children and wives turn out their husbands. Dirt and disease are everywhere. Strange fires burn untended in the streets. And yet, I began by mentioning the beauty and grace in Costa’s work, and I mean it, for surely any definition of beauty that excludes any or all of the above isn’t very worthwhile. Costa does not prettify or fetishize that which lies before his camera in the exploitative way of a City of God. Nor is it correct to say that Costa gives “dignity” to his subjects, for the dignity is theirs to begin with — present in every crease of their weathered skins. Costa merely reveals things to us — people, places, feelings — in the way a sculptor, guided by some immutable inner voice, reveals the likeness that has always lurked beneath a slab of marble. Simply put, the residents of Fontainhas — who have occupied the central position in three of Costa’s last four films — are no more demanding of our pity than Chaplin’s Tramp or Steinbeck’s Joads. Their lives may not be heroic, but they are unmistakably the heroes of their own stories.

These are difficult movies to see, in two senses of the word. The first is a practical matter: Costa lives and works in Portugal, a country whose films and filmmakers — with the exception of the 98-year-old Manoel de Oliveira — are little known by even the most well-versed of cinephiles. Only Costa’s second two features, Down to Earth (Casa de Lava) and Bones, have been issued on English-subtitled DVDs, and then only in France. Yet, even this weekend, when you have only to drive into downtown to have Costa’s complete oeuvre (none of which has ever screened publicly in Los Angeles) at your fingertips, the films remain difficult to see, if by “seeing” we mean understanding a film as more than the sum of its characters, story and style. Costa himself has said, “It’s as difficult to see a film as it is to make one properly,” and much like the people they depict, Costa’s films consist of seemingly simple surfaces that belie things private and unyielding. They are films made in rejection of the notion that we should comprehend every last detail about a film on first viewing — or even on a second. And if one adapts to this way of seeing a film — instead of stubbornly insisting that the film should adapt to the viewer — Costa’s work will haunt your dreams and remain with you upon waking.

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