“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.
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.
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.
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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