Letters From Fontainhas:(The Criterion Collection, 3.30.2010)
Three Films by Pedro Costa
The Criterion Collection has always been relatively critic-proof, but until recently their one major stumbling block was the lack of contemporary world cinema on their roster. With the recent release of films like Hunger, Summer Hours, Revanche and this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Pedro Costa set, Criterion finally appears to have its finger on the pulse of the international festival circuit in a way that it never did previously. But those who believe Criterion can do no wrong should be forewarned: Pedro Costa's films are wildly divisive and not the guaranteed dose of historic, unanimously-admired film art that Criterion generally puts their weight behind. Not to be too hyperbolic about it, but if you've never seen a Pedro Costa film, chances are you have no idea what you're getting yourself into.
Internationally regarded as one of the major art film auteurs working today, Costa is not your everyday patience-testing wielder of directorial self-indulgence. When a filmmaker's most commercial, accessible film is a Bressonian exercise in elliptical narrative, well, be prepared for some heavy lifting. Which is not to suggest that Costa's work is without its rewards, you just have to work a little harder to get to the heart of these oddly remote, listless films.
While there's no question that Costa is an incredibly important filmmaker and one worthy of the Criterion treatment, his films lack the traditional aesthetic or emotional flourishes that we normally associate with even the most difficult art cinema. If you're a brave cinematic warrior, this is a mountain you really should climb, but these films aren't for everyone. In fact, they're for almost no one.
In essence, Costa's focus is preserving and documenting social history, but he's also creating artful, challenging fiction. This interplay is essential to the ingenious strategy of his work. By conflating fiction and non-fiction, Costa gets credit for authenticity where he doesn't necessarily deserve it. Even when this authenticity is derived from recognizably non-fiction material, Costa receives equal praise for faithfully documenting and bringing attention to a troubled community on the brink of extinction.
Unfortunately, much of this effect is lost when watching these films on a TV set by yourself. Pedro Costa is exciting to many critics because his films offer a big screen platform that forces rooms full of people (in a festival setting, generally) to turn their collective attention to the kind of tragic figures they'd rather ignore. Not only that, but Costa offers the real thing, not a half-hearted fictional analog. With that game plan alone, Costa's films are critic proof in some circles, while inspiring befuddled head-scratching in others.
Some of that head-scratching stems from the general lack of narrative in these films, but it is nonetheless appropriate to classify them as a trilogy. These are all character-driven drama that deal with poverty as experienced in the slums of Fontainhas, a small village on the outskirts of Lisbon. How you rate each film will depend on how you respond to their respective aesthetic strategies, as Costa tries something new each time.
If you start with Ossos, you might guess that it's the most difficult film in the trilogy... but it's actually the most accessible. That's saying a lot for a quiet, elliptical film that falls somewhere between the Robert Bresson of L'Argent  and the faux Bresson of the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant, though that comparison has more to do with subject matter -- a young, impoverished couple struggling with parenthood -- than any stylistic parallels. In Ossos, Costa's appealingly uncluttered filmmaking manages to be both purposeful and mysterious. Part of the film's peculiar resonance stems from the fact that Costa makes so little effort to have an emotional effect . Much like the films of Bresson, Costa films reply on the power of restraint.
Following Ossos, I was excited to see what Costa came up with next. Not only had he accomplished a great deal with Ossos, but In Vanda's had been ranked by many as one of the defining films of the last decade. But there was no way of anticipating that a film this inextricably linked to Ossos could ultimately be so wildly different. You really need to brace yourself for this film, which is not to say you won't like it, but Costa doesn't just want you to sense poverty, he wants you to feel it in all its ugliness and boredom. Gone is the aesthetic invention of Ossos  and, in its place, we get long, static shots of real people living their real lives. It's like a nature documentary with human subjects.
Some of this may be scripted, but you'd never know it, as no narrative ever takes shape and, in many cases, the scenes drag on endlessly and serve no apparent purpose. But what you really need to prepare for is the grotesque, up-close view of heroin addiction that this film subjects the viewer to. On one hand, this is a refreshing alternative to the wildly aestheticized depiction of drug use in films like Trainspotting and Requiem For a Dream, but a case could be made that Costa goes too far in the other direction. Imagine spending the better part of three hours sitting in a heroin addict's bedroom while she smokes the drug, rambles incoherently, bizarrely scrapes at the pages of a phone book and coughs/vomits uncontrollably. Welcome to In Vanda's Room. Even the best possible version of this film is doomed to be an agonizing experience.
What's really missing from Costa's approach is the feeling of the drugs, which is the reason the aforementioned films by Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky should not be dismissed. Rather than try to get inside Vanda's experience, Costa keeps us at a voyeuristic distance, which in some ways dehumanizes Vanda, even as Costa purports to be doing the opposite. For all the praise he receives for giving agency to forgotten people on the fringes of society, a case could be made that Costa is doing little more than generating condescending pity from an audience of educated, financially stable people who "know better." When the real Vanda saw the film, she thought it was hilarious, presumably because she was recalling the pleasure of the heroin experience, rather than the harsh, alienating perspective Costa brings to the proceedings.
Costa's approach quickly becomes repetitive, as he backs-down from the challenges of his increased immersion in this reality, resorting to visual formulae, rather than devise an imaginative strategy for his camera. He seems to put the ease and comfort of making the film  before any creative concerns. Scene-after-scene, he positions the camera in the same part of Vanda's room, as she repeats the same behaviour again and again. Those seeking realism and nothing else may appreciate the spirit of accuracy here -- most habitual heroin users probably do lead very repetitive lives -- but there's nothing especially noteworthy about this reality onscreen or Costa's handling of it.
To be fair, In Vanda's Room is impressive in its rejection of virtually all cinematic conventions, even out-there art film conventions. Most filmmakers have rejected Costa's approach because of their concern for the audience, but Costa is downright hostile to the idea of cinema as pleasure. His lack of compromise in this area is admirable. It also means the viewer is kinda screwed as far as pleasure is concerned.
The minimalism of Costa's approach also has the benefit of making any non-minimalist gesture feel hugely resonant. In the absence of these gestures , it's probably best to approach this film as a documentary and try to find you way in from that perspective. As fiction, it feels hugely clumsy and undisciplined, but there's no doubt that Costa's camera sees things we've rarely seen onscreen before.
In praising or criticizing Costa's work, it's worth remembering that he's (deliberately) not in complete control of these films. Since reality plays a major role in the proceedings, much of the time, he simply goes where it takes him. Thankfully, for Costa's next feature, reality conspired to take him in a far more interesting direction, one that allowed him to combine the most intriguing elements of Ossos with the DV intimacy of In Vanda's Room. The result is Colossal Youth, Costa's finest film to date and the single best reason to buy this set.
Not only does this film represent a significant leap forward, but it also has the retroactive effect of making In Vanda's Room more rewarding, as Colossal Youth would lose much of its resonance if not for the background provided by that film. In fact, there's probably a way that both of these films could be combined to form one giant Fontainhas saga along the lines of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: The Complete Epic . In Vanda's Room nor Colossal Youth can only have their full effect with the support of the other.
Seeing Vanda in freshly-painted public housing with a baby and a less prominent drug habit , you can't help but conjure images of her bleak past, images we wouldn't have access to without In Vanda's Room. When she erupts in one of her trademark coughing fits, we realize that even if her drug habit is under control, the damage she's done to her body is not.
The superficial improvements in her quality of life also provide an interesting counterpoint to feelings of lost identity that accompany the destruction of her old neighbourhood. In their new homes, these characters experience superficial relief, but in a deeper sense, they've lost their sense of identity. In the past, Vanda couldn't see how miserable her life looked to the outside world and she's now immersed in this bland, homogenized model of happiness that makes her feel anonymous. It also acts as a metaphor for life after heroine. Vanda can feel a certain vitality missing from her life, but her past no longer has a physical form she can return to.
In Colossal Youth, Costa seems to have discovered the value of contrast. Whereas In Vanda's Room kept hitting the same note -- poverty, suffering, depravity -- Colossal Youth recognizes that these lives are made up of interesting frictions. This makes for a far more suggestive, conflicted viewing experience and one that rewards multiple viewings.
Colossal Youth also embraces story to a greater extent than In Vanda's Room. Costa's approach is still quite elliptical -- and there are long stretches where very little happens -- but there are a few overarching narrative concerns that give the film an organizing framework. The film also returns to the more scripted interactions of Ossos, rather than the unmediated reality of In Vanda's Room.
This time around, Costa focuses on an elderly man named Ventura, who has been abandoned by his wife and forms close bonds with his neighbours (including Vanda), who he thinks of as his children. Ventura is Costa's most appealing protagonist yet and one whose modest, contemplative temperament  is an ideal match for Costa's style. In the past, Costa has been content to approach his characters as strangers , but in Colossal Youth, there are attempts to actually get inside this protagonist's head and understand what he's going through. Whether this is a one-off indulgence or a glimpse into a more accessible cinematic future for Costa remains to be seen .
Once you've made it through these frequently inexplicable films, you should be salivating for a little guidance from Criterion. This is a good news/bad news proposition. On the plus side, Criterion has pulled out all the stops and this material is always interesting, but it's not going to do the work for you. Costa isn't a very animated speaker and he has a tendency to communicate in metaphors and generalities. He'll talk about his films for hours, but he probably won't address any of your burning questions. Sure, he'll allude to all the areas you're thinking about -- from the unusual "performances" to the evolving production methods these define these films -- but his answers tend to be cryptic, even evasive .
The real problem is Criterion's choice to pair Costa with Jean-Pierre Gorin for many of the extras. Don't get me wrong, I admire Gorin's films (ie. Tout va bien, Poto and Capengo) and he always impresses with his intellect, but his tendency toward the pedantic is too close to Costa's own sensibility. While Costa does most of the talking, Gorin has moments of outrageous arrogance. At one point, Gorin explains that he screened In Vanda's Room and an unspecified Brilliante Mendoza film for his students at University of California, San Diego . Before showing the films, he warned his students that they'd like one of these films and hate the other, but their opinions should be reversed. In other words, he's forcing his generation's aesthetics on another, almost like a sixties film professor telling his students to embrace John Ford and reject Jean-Luc Godard. Why can't they like both... or neither?
But the real reason Gorin makes for a poor conversation partner is that he never takes the skeptics' perspective into account. What I'd really like to see is a conversation between Costa and a critic or filmmaker who has serious problems with his work. If Costa were actually asked to defend his films, he might offer some illuminating insight into his own sense of his films' strengths and weaknesses. Instead, the genius of these films is approached as a given , which leaves little room for any meaningful discussion of Costa's aesthetic experiments. Arguing that these films are entirely successful or entirely unsuccessful are equally preposterous positions, but those are the most common responses to these love-it-or-hate-it button-pushers. In any case, if you're feeling wildly conflicted about these films, don't expect that reaction to be addressed anywhere on this set.
That said, dedicated viewers who are hungry for more will find hours of intriguing content to explore. Extras include a video essay by artist Jeff Wall on Ossos, video interviews with critic João Bénard da Costa and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel about Ossos, video conversations between Costa and Gorin about Ossos and Colossal Youth, an audio commentary by Costa and Gorin for In Vanda’s Room, selected-scene commentary for Colossal Youth by critic Cyril Neyrat and author-philosopher Jacques Rancière, galleries of photos by Mariana Viegas and Richard Dumas, theatrical trailers and a booklet with several illuminating  essays.
In addition, the bonus disc includes All Blossoms Again, a fascinating feature length documentary that shows Costa in much the same way as he shows his characters, both at work and simply going about his daily life. Glimpses of Costa in the editing room are particularly illuminating, as is his incredibly laid back, exploratory manner on set.
This disc also includes Costa's most recent artistic output, namely Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters, a pair of short films that follow roughly the same stylistic template as Colossal Youth. Used in two different omnibus films, these shorts were derived from the same material, so entire sequences are repeated -- but with some intriguing differences.
Ironically, a far greater digression from Costa's usual sensibility is found in Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female, even though it is comprised of outtakes from In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth. Consisting entirely of split screen images from two different locations, this fascinating installation piece features an intriguing tension of sound and image, alleviating the sense of passivity that so often overwhelms Costa's films. This comparative approach breaks the purity of Costa's realism -- rather than truly experience either place, we experience an impossible hybrid -- and creates a more overtly cinematic space. Whereas Costa's approach so often seems to be about confinement and limiting possibilities, this piece is all about expanding possibilities and inviting exploration. Here's hoping Costa goes somewhere with this idea in his future films.
If nothing else, Letters From Fontainhas has the distinction of inspiring the longest review in DiscLand's nearly six-year history. Needless to say, any serious time spent with this box set will encourage surprise, frustration, excitement and a great deal of thought. While Costa doesn't always succeed in his experiments, his willingness to take risks ultimately delivers results of lasting significance. Fontainhas may be a distant memory for those who lived there, but it lives on in Costa's films . It's not clear what he's evolving toward, but whatever he does next -- whether maddening, impressive or both -- is sure to reveal worlds we never imagined. And they'll probably be real. -- Jonathan Doyle
1 Costa even hired L'Argent cinematographer, Emmanuel Machuel.
2 A Costa trademark. We'll come back to this.
3 Costa downgraded from 35mm to cheap digital video and replaced his skilled cinematographer with... himself.
4 Okay, given Costa's limited means and lack of crew, it couldn't have been easy to shoot anything for this film, but the film's visual style still reeks of laziness more than calculated minimalism.
5 There aren't many.
6 This little-seen oddity combines The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and several deleted scenes from both into one long, bloated, chronological re-imagining of the two good Godfather films. I rented it on VHS years ago and wasn't that impressed with the effect. Still, it's worth noting that De Niro's portion of the film holds its own, even without the editorial juxtaposition provided in The Godfather: Part II.
7 She's moved-on to methadone.
8 He's sort of like a cross between Jesus from Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew and the frail old priest from Dawn of the Dead, who explains the religious implications of zombies to Ken Foree.
9 Artist Jeff Wall discusses this in his video essay about Ossos.
10 With Costa, accessibility is a relative concept.
11 Like his films.
12 Where he's been teaching film studies for thirty-five years.
13 A common tendency among Costa supporters and a convenient alternative to articulating the mysterious, elusive appeal of these films.
14 If overly gushing.
15 For better or worse.