Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy: Rooms for the Living and the Dead

The work of Pedro Costa has progressed in slow, measured steps, but each step has been a giant leap. His slowness is both the condition and the consequence of ethical standards he shares with precious few directors of his generation. This is no longer the old question of the relationship between subject and form but one of a daily work ethic endowing each decision regarding the frame or the lighting, and searching every face or word, with the same emotional gravity, the same seriousness, so that the film’s rhythm is perfectly attuned to the rhythm of life. Yet nothing could be further from the documentary pseudo-transparency inherited from Direct Cinema than these monumental, hieratic, and feverish films, realized with ceremonial rigor. The singularity of Pedro Costa’s work is found in an unrelentingly hardworking approach to form, but one based on a rare quality of patience, passivity, and surrender to the people and places filmed.

Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth: until the next one comes along, these films form a temporary trilogy at the heart of Costa’s body of work. We’ll call it the Fontainhas Trilogy, so long as we agree that the name refers to a community as much as to a place. Fontainhas is the name of a Lisbon neighborhood that no longer exists, that was demolished, a squalid outlying area, a mix of casbah and shantytown, where a population of Portuguese subproletarians and Cape Verdean immigrants once tried to scrape by. In discovering these people and this neighborhood and setting up camp there, Costa became who he is and found his own territory, both in life and in film.

One could identify two primal scenes, two authentic foundations of this territory, both of which are distinct from the chronological beginnings of Costa’s career.

Nineteen ninety-four: Costa has just shot his second feature in Cape Verde, Casa de lava. This first break with his past—the decision to film there, in the former colony, lost off the coast of Africa—takes the opposing course to his first feature. Shot after he finished film school in Lisbon, O sangue (1989) is an unusually beautiful film, but one that is closed, fantasized, shot in the sphere of a cinephile mythology and saturated with references and admiration. To leave for Cape Verde was to set out to sea, to choose to be on Portugal’s margins for the first time, and to run the risk of losing himself. It was a salutary perdition, for over there Costa discovered a land, a history, and a sense of humanity from which he would never stray. As he prepared to return to Portugal, he was asked to play postman, to deliver letters and presents to Cape Verdean immigrants in the suburbs of Lisbon. Thus he discovered Fontainhas and loved it immediately, for both its human and its aesthetic qualities. He began hanging out there, meeting people, having drinks and smoking cigarettes with them. One day, he met Vanda and Zita Duarte, two junkie sisters, savage beauties who spent their days in their bedroom, talking and smoking heroin. He decided to make his next film there, with these people, these women. That would be Ossos.

His work’s second primal scene has taken on the luster of legend, though it is undoubtedly true and absolutely practical. In 1997, Pedro Costa made Ossos in Fontainhas. This was a traditional production, shot in 35 mm, with tracks, floodlights, and assistants. Costa was a professional, a part of the Portuguese film industry. The shoot proceeded with everyone doing his job, following the routine of European art film. And the uneasiness grew, the feeling that a lie was being told, that an imbalance both moral and totally concrete was taking root on both sides of the camera. Costa later said: “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.” Too much squalor and despair in front of the camera, too much money, equipment, and wasted energy behind it. And too much light shining in the night of a neighborhood of manual laborers and cleaning women who got up at 5:00 a.m. So one night, Costa decided to turn off the lights and pack up the extra equipment, in an attempt to diminish the shameful sense of invasion and indecency. His action was doubly groundbreaking because in what he did, Costa found his own light, that quality of darkness and nuance he would constantly hone from that night on, and because he understood that the cinema of tracking shots, assistants, producers, and lights was not his. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to be alone in this neighborhood with these people he loved. To take his time, to find a rhythm and working method attuned to their space and their existence. To start with a clean slate, from scratch. To reinvent his art. Three years after this leap into the void, In Vanda’s Room became the result of this departure—in Costa’s work but also in the history of the cinema.

But let’s come back to Ossos. Today, we should be able to appreciate the film both on its own terms, putting aside the works that followed, and in relation to In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, the distance traveled from it to them. In and of itself, it is one of the most beautiful films of the nineties, exemplifying a current of the era’s auteurist cinema yet already reaching beyond it. The last fires of a dying European aesthetic glow in Ossos: an elliptical plot, highly composed wide shots held for a long time, the generally unmoving and silent presence of characters who preserve their mysterious density until the end. But a new energy is blowing on the embers, that of a brutal reality that auteur cinema had always avoided confronting: that impossible but oh-so-real location, those desperate people, enraged and resisting, suddenly visible, radiating a dark light. What is striking, when we consider the films that came after, is the extent to which Costa is already taking flight, despite the weight of traditional filmmaking. The people of Fontainhas—Vanda, Zita, and the others—play characters, embody parts. But Costa is already filming their pure presence in space, their strength, their resistance, capturing what is beneath the actors, the truth of the individuals.

The film was welcomed by moviegoers, given a prize at Venice, praised by the critics—and co-opted by the Portuguese political class and media, seemingly stunned to discover in their city of Lisbon such a level of poverty, of which they feigned ignorance. In the career of any European auteur, Ossos would be a great first peak; for Pedro Costa, it marked the realization that he had reached a dead end, the conclusion of a certain way of making films. He could have continued in the same vein and become one of the masters of European auteur film. Leaving that well-worn path, he ventured into unknown territory, territory that politicians and the media could no longer touch. (In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth were celebrated by critics and festivals the world over—the latter screened in competition at Cannes in 2006—but they did not have the box-office success of Ossos. Still, they had something better: in each viewer who felt the films looking at him or her, they sparked the certainty that an essential encounter—an expansion of life—had taken place, something far beyond admiration.)

Nineteen ninety-eight: For three years, Danish and other filmmakers had been shooting films with small digital cameras. A hypocritical Dogme claimed to return to the sources of cinema, but its vow of chastity only disguised the same old stories and seductive provocations. Costa bought a Panasonic DV and went to Fontainhas alone, every day. Vanda and Zita had invited him into their room: “Come, you’ll see what our lives are really like. You used to ask us to be quiet; now we’re going to talk, you’re going to listen. That’s all we do, talk and take drugs.” Over six months, alone with his DV camera, a mirror he found on-site, and cobbled-together reflectors, Costa reinvented his cinema: facing the bed, he looked for frames and strove to master the light that came in through a single tiny window, as in a Dutch painting. When he left this green room, he would meet some guys and get to know them, learn to film them. They talked a lot less than the girls: they shot up, tinkered, survived. After the six months, a sound engineer came to lend a hand from time to time. He recorded the girls’ speech, the murmur of Fontainhas, the sounds of the bulldozers and the mechanical diggers tearing the condemned neighborhood’s houses down one by one. The miracle of In Vanda’s Room is that of a new agreement between the world and the film, of a recovered equality between the two sides of the camera.

A year of shooting, a year of editing. Taking full advantage of the working possibilities offered by DV, this liberated cinema reversed the formula adopted by Ossos and traditional productions: no money, making do with the absolute minimum, but time regained and unlimited. Costa reinvented a solitary, craftsmanlike cinema, operating at the pace of everyday life: going into the neighborhood each morning, looking, working, doing nothing, picking from the stream of life and energy flowing before the camera something that might give rise to a scene. And then repeat it, do it over—up to twenty times—until the beauty and the intellectual and imaginary power of a sculpted reality made dense and musical are revealed. With In Vanda’s Room, Costa strips cinema bare, but far from wallowing in an aesthetic poverty that would add to the humiliation of the underprivileged of Fontainhas, he rediscovers in this subtraction the aura of the great primitive and classic cinemas, and their ability to reveal and celebrate the beauty of the world, the beauty of sounds and colors, of a ray of light passing through shutters to illuminate three bottles set on a wood table. Not a cosmetic beauty but one that is caustic and critical—a beauty that allows us to see, hear, and feel the strengths and weaknesses, the pride and shame, the despair and the life that resists and rises up against destruction and annihilation. Notions of fiction and documentary become obsolete; nothing is written or made up, but the people speaking or silent before the camera populate the richest, most bewitching cinematic universe.

Thus the leap into the void opened the possibility of and set the example for a rejuvenation and renewed power of cinema, the power of bearing witness and telling stories, the political power of an art that has tipped to the other side of the world, taking the side of the other half that Jacob Riis and fellow citizen photographers documented in the slums of New York in the early twentieth century. In Vanda’s Room places cinema back in the greatest tradition of realism: a diagonal that cuts through the art of the twentieth century, connecting Griffith and Straub, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Warhol and Costa.

By the time In Vanda’s Room was released, the Portuguese government had nearly completed the demolition of Fontainhas. Yet Costa knew he would remain faithful to the neighborhood and that other films would accompany the history of this people. Once again, it wasn’t an idea but an encounter that ignited the flame. Costa met Ventura, an enigmatic presence who seemed to have walked out of a Tourneur film and who had haunted the shoot of In Vanda’s Room without ever finding a place on-screen. Attracted then impressed by Ventura and his soothsayer’s eyes, sorcerer’s silences, and zombie stiffness, Costa made him the soul and guide of a new epic journey. The fruit of three years of dogged work, Colossal Youth was another giant leap into another cinematic dimension.

In Vanda’s Room the film resembles Vanda the girl and the direct, equal-to-equal relationship Costa established with her. Colossal Youth is as different from the earlier work as Ventura is from Vanda. Ventura is the one to dictate the film’s form, to invite Costa to leave behind the horizontality of the chronicle for the verticals and oblique lines of the great epic form. Ventura is a block of strangeness, an anachronistic presence who carries within him the entire history of his people and their neighborhood. Costa keeps a low profile in front of Ventura, sets his camera at a low angle to raise the film to the heights of its hero. Everything starts here, before the singularity of a character. In Notes for an African Orestes, Pasolini recognized the characters of Aeschylus’s tragedies in the demeanors and faces of Ugandan farmers. Costa repeats this gesture of magical incantation by seeing in Ventura a king without a kingdom, by hearing in his story that of a strange prophet who carries his slow gait and oracular words through the ages. This is no longer the dense, musical present of In Vanda’s Room but a multiple and ambiguous time, an arrangement of layers of time, traversed and connected by Ventura’s body and words. His words also change dimensions: no more prosaic conversations and logorrhea, but a tangle of monologues telling legendary tales and dialogues spoken without looking, in a vision beyond sight, punctuated by the sharp, decisive, and founding words of Ventura. It is also another articulation of life and death. The destruction of Fontainhas set the line of flight for In Vanda’s Room, on which some would die and others would survive. In Colossal Youth’s sedimented time, the living and the dead hold each other by the hand, wander together between memories of the past, the dark ruins of Fontainhas, and the uninhabitable whiteness of so-called social housing. But already life was demanding new spaces. After Colossal Youth, Costa shot two short films with Ventura—Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters—stories of exile and wandering that may herald a continuation: after the loss of a neighborhood, a space to live in, the necessity for Ventura and his children to invent a country and a territory for themselves, over the course of a film. That would be the next step.

Between In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, Costa directed Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, a portrait of filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet as they worked on their film Sicilia! in the editing room: Costa refining his method in another chamber film, alone with his DV camera in a single room with a door opening on a hallway. Lessons from the venerated older masters Straub and Huillet permeate Colossal Youth in a way not seen in Costa’s previous films—the hieratic radiance of bodies and faces, the incantatory power of speech. Standing motionless in door frames, Ventura provides a tragic variation of Straub’s comical routine at the entrance of the editing room. Though Colossal Youth’s space is infinitely more complex, it remains a chamber film, in the sense of the term chamber music. Restricted space, masterfully delineated with natural light, becomes a resonance chamber for physical presences and voices differentiated and modulated like musical instruments. On this score, Costa reaches for Godard’s highest ambition with the combined means of Straub and Tourneur.

Costa admits to being proud of one thing: of creating an archive of a people and a neighborhood, one film at a time. Yet he does even more: he writes their legend, paints their history, sculpts their monument. His is also the counterhistory of a country, the Portugal of the betrayed revolution. Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth: the movement that connects and separates these three films goes back further, to an older source, found in the room where, in the late seventies, the student Pedro Costa ruminated on the Portuguese betrayal, in a solitude populated by punk antiheroes and rebellious filmmakers.

Translated by Nicholas Elliott.

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