By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Costa has never been typical, though his early work at least bears the lipstick traces of conventional film production. His 1989 debut feature, The Blood (O Sangue), is a black-and-white, film noir–fed fever dream — comparisons have been made to The Night of the Hunter — about two brothers left to fend for themselves when their father disappears, or is murdered (depending on what you make of the typically oblique Costa image of what may be a human body being dragged into a lake under cover of darkness). That movie and Costa’s two subsequent features were all professionally made, brilliantly photographed in 35 mm by crews that one marvels could be squeezed into the small Cape Verdean fishing village of Down to Earth, or the crumbling apartments of Bones. For a director as invested as Costa is in the moral and ethical ramifications of filmmaking — of intruding upon life with one’s camera — it was perhaps inevitable that he could not continue working in this way. So, with In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto de Vanda) (2000), Costa often filmed alone, with a small DV camera, in a manner that a professional production could never support: two years spent entrenched in Fontainhas, in and around the domicile of the titular methadone addict (whom Costa had first encountered while making Bones), and one more in the editing room. The result is a film of the most extraordinary stillness and patience — a movie of lives suspended in time. It is a film that challenges our notions of where documentary ends and fiction begins. And it was, for Costa, an artistic breakthrough comparable to Jackson Pollock’s discovery of abstract expressionism.
To fully understand the achievement of In Vanda’s Room, it may be necessary to see the film Costa made immediately after it, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), which is a portrait of the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub and his late wife, Danielle Huillet, as they work on the editing of their 1999 film Sicily! It is, Costa has said, a movie about work, and that is true; but it is moreover a movie about patience and precision, and about the life-altering consequences that can be contained within a single frame of film, a single cut, a single word. As the Straubs view and re-view the same stretches of film, searching for what they believe in their gut — that there is only one right way to put it all together — it is as though Costa is showing us what he demands of himself as an artist working in cinema.
Which brings me, I suppose, back to Colossal Youth, which is both Costa’s most discussed film to date and, I would propose, his greatest. It is Fontainhas once more, or rather what is left of it, as a man called Ventura wanders dazedly between his gutted-out former residence and a couple of prospective new ones, crossing paths with a succession of fellow travelers whom he refers to as his “children,” grasping at the flickering embers of some real or imagined past. It is, unlike In Vanda’s Room, a film in which we are constantly forced to assess what is real and what is but a waking dream — a film in which the living dead of George Romero seem to be perambulating the desolate vistas of John Ford. Only, the monuments in this valley are not mountains but ruins. I grant that Colossal Youth isn’t for everyone: The pacing is slow (there are maybe 30 or 40 shots over the course of two and a half hours of screen time), and sometimes we are looking, for minutes on end, at two people lying on a bed watching TV, or sitting in a small, under-lit room playing cards. But as with so many of the greatest and most lasting artists, Costa is not meant to be easy, nor is he likely to be fully appreciated in his own lifetime.
Costa will not get rich making these movies — not monetarily so, though he may be the first modern filmmaker to beg serious consideration for a Nobel Peace Prize. In the meantime, at REDCAT, one can see Costa’s newest work, the short film Tarrafal (which premiered this year at Cannes), and another remarkable short, Ne Change Rien, starring the actress Jeanne Balibar in a trio of musical sequences that progress from the intimacy of a dressing room to the blinding stage lights of a crowded arena. It is said by Costa to be part of a larger work in progress, the full nature of which one can only imagine. A Pedro Costa musical — now, what would that be like?
STILL LIVES: THE FILMS OF PEDRO COSTA | REDCAT | Through Sept. 22 | www.redcat.org
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city