Criterion Sunday 511: Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006)

I’m not sure is this is the best of Pedro Costa’s three films grouped together as the “Fontainhas trilogy” after the Lisbon slum/shanty town where they take place, but after spending so much time with these characters in this place, its quiet reflectiveness feels the richest, perhaps because of that time spent. Costa too has developed his video aesthetic that he began with In Vanda’s Room, recapturing some of the painterly contrast that was at play in the first of the three (Ossos) but without the conventions of the narrative. The characters are still slouching around going nowhere, interspersed with the tall and elegant elderly man Ventura narrating a letter to someone long gone it seems. and there’s not much in the way of plot to speak of, but it swaps out the crumbling buildings of the previous films for the new apartments built in their place, which have a sort of antiseptic quality, though there’s still plenty enough places for Costa to find his crepuscular shadows. I can’t really explain too much why I like it, but it’s an experience that just needs to sort of wash over you, and at that level I find it rewarding.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Leonardo Simões; Starring Ventura, Vanda Duarte; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and I’m fairly sure I saw it a cinema in London, probably the ICA, back in around 2007, but I don’t have a record of it).

Criterion Sunday 510: No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000)

As a film this is certainly a follow-up to Pedro Costa’s 1997 film Ossos, sharing a lot of the same characters (or maybe they’re real life figures: the term “docufiction” is applied and it’s impossible to know where the boundaries lie), and stylistically we have all these dark, derelict spaces beautifully framed and lit, captured by Costa’s camera, largely fixed in place. However, it’s also quite different, not just in taking in an expansive running time, but in embracing then relatively new digital video technology. There’s a notable degradation to the image compared to Ossos, but this is formally matched to the setting, which itself is a rough, broken area of housing being literally torn down as we watch and as these characters try to live their lives. Drugs are a major part of coping, and watching Vanda and her friends shooting up, sniffing and otherwise ingesting drugs is part of the texture of the film, not a moral lesson so much as just a throughline to their misery. Not much happens in some senses, and this is where watching on a big screen, in the captive experience of a cinema, would undoubtedly have improved it for me. As it was, my attention strayed but never for too long, and Costa proves himself adept at capturing something remarkable about these lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Pedro Costa; Starring Vanda Duarte; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 26 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 509: Ossos (1997)

I can’t fully pretend to be able to tell apart the characters in this film by Pedro Costa, which kicks off his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (being the films set in the downmarket area of Lisbon where migrants from former colonies have tended to cluster together). Nor am I entirely sure of their relationships to one another. However, Costa’s filmmaking is absolutely clear in finding perfect images to capture the essence of this neighbourhood and of the squalor in which the characters live. Not quite dim and unlit as his later films, there’s still a palpable sense of chiaroscuro to the contrasts in these interiors, as characters with equally murky intentions move through them (a young mother, a feckless father, some others who are trying to do good to little avail). Every shot here has a careful and palpable beauty to it, even as the characters themselves seem unable to express themselves and keep trying to find a way out of a certain sense of hopelessness. It feels like a move towards his modern style of filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; Starring Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 508: “Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa”

Like the recent boxset on Rossellini’s War Trilogy, this trilogy of films by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa also have a documentary quality, being set in ruined areas dealing with broken people trying to put their lives together, and largely using non-professional actors and people found in the location. That said, Costa’s style is far more deliberate and carefully-composed I think, and there’s a hue to the haunting, chiaroscuro images that recalls contemporary art gallery work. Here, Costa’s figures struggle to make themselves seen in the half-light of the settings in the downtrodden neighbourhood of Fontainhas in Lisbon, as stories of migrants from former colonial possessions and those cast off by society criss-cross in these films. All three feature some of Costa’s most favoured non-actors, like Vanda Duarte in the first two, Ossos (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000), and the mononymous Ventura in the third, Colossal Youth (2006), an actor with whom he has continued to work in more recent features like Horse Money and Vitalina Varela.

Vitalina Varela (2019)

This film was at the 2019 London Film Festival, where a lot of people I know and like had already seen it and fallen in love. At festivals I try to prioritise films I don’t expect to come back to cinemas, but that also sometimes means a bit of a wait, and 2020 in general will probably mean I don’t see some classics for a year or two yet. Pedro Costa’s got its cinema release while I was on holiday, and by the time I got back, we were into lockdown, so I belatedly caught up with on Mubi. Home viewng doesn’t really seem the ideal way to experience Costa’s frequently very darkly-lit pieces, but it turns out the power was still very evident, making this easily one of my favourites.


For whatever reason, I found it difficult to get into Horse Money, Pedro Costa’s last film in 2014, but I think part of it is just down to how tired you are when you watch them (and I was very tired), because they have a curiously oneiric/soporific quality, falling somewhere in between wakefulness and lucid dreaming (I’m reminded a little of the tone of Lucrecia Martel’s films also, although stylistically they are quite different). The frame in any given shot within a Costa movie is frequently dominated by heavy shadows, with the encroaching darkness that looms from the edges of the frame suggesting both a lingering mood and the difficulty characters have in moving forward. This film starts with a death, telegraphed through glimpsed items, characters posed in mourning, a bloodied pillow and sheets suggestive of trauma, and it’s into this that the title character arrives, the wife of the recently deceased (picking up on a story told in the earlier film). The darkness of the frames is matched to the decrepitude of the dwelling places, mud and dirt, a broken roof, a sense of society in collapse — this is Portugal, though the characters all come from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, and colonialism seems to be an unspoken backdrop to the drama. It’s slow cinema, of course, reminding me of similar imagery (albeit more waterlogged) in Tsai Ming-liang’s films, but if you’re attuned to it — and I felt more so here than the last time I watched a Costa film — it feels rewarding too.

Vitalina Varela film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Vitalina Varela, Ventura; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

Cavalo Dinheiro (Horse Money, 2014)

Portuguese director Pedro Costa makes films which are oblique, to say the least. In scene after narratively-indeterminate scene of Horse Money, faces loom out of an inky blackness like shards of light piercing the viewer’s imperfect understanding of what exactly is going on. But though I can’t say it’s always clear, it does make some kind of poetic sense, as we get Costa’s most frequent collaborator Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean man with a scraggly white beard and a haunted look, wandering astray around a night-time Lisbon. From what I can gather, he’s been confined to a hospital (or a prison maybe) and has escaped, but to be honest I’m really not sure. He has dialogues with others, including Vitalina Varela (a fellow inmate? a revolutionary?) and the disembodied voice of a militaristic statue while riding in an elevator. Scenes come upon one another as if in a dreamlike fugue, snatched remembrances, dialogues with the past. It’s impressionistic at the very least, and maybe even a bit boring if you don’t attune yourself to its peculiar rhythms, but it’s not easily dismissed.

Horse Money film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Costa; Starring Ventura, Vitalina Varela; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)

Films About FilmmakingFor this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.


The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.

As mentioned above, the primary location for the film is an editing suite, where Straub and Huillet are working on their 1999 film Sicilia! (which I didn’t see until after I’d watched this documentary). Huillet sits at the editing booth, while Straub offers his opinions to her as they (and we the audience) look at the film’s scenes, replaying small moments over and over again and noting the tiniest of details of gesture, eye movement, extraneous detail, even sound (for such are the concerns of the editor). Straub also paces around, holding forth about various subjects related to their own work practice and to film history, addressing his comments to an unseen and unheard interlocutor (not always Huillet, and never directly to Costa, but perhaps just to himself, such is his manic energy). As such, much of the film takes place in the perilous darkness, lit only sporadically by the editor’s lamp (which flicks on only when the footage is not playing on screen), or the light from the outside corridor when Straub pops out — which happens frequently, incessantly — while Huillet is cutting the film.

If this insight into their methods has its own fascination, what’s striking is how out of time it seems, even for 1998 when they were making their film, as Huillet physically marks and cuts the lengths of film that she runs through spools, watching the footage on a small monitor accompanied by the loud mechanical whirr of the machinery. But it also has a sort of purity given the very spare images that they have filmed — all the ones we see are a series of dialogues between two people, echoing perhaps the dynamic in this very documentary — and makes the viewer think even more about the choices they make as editors about where exactly to transition between one shot and the next. It also occasions some comparison with Costa’s own methods, who unlike Straub and Huillet is not restricted to a strip of film with its image and soundtrack combined — indeed, the older filmmakers spend a lot of time contemplating where to cut based on extraneous noises that crop up, such as a car door slamming in the background, which would seem bizarre to a modern editor for whom the soundtrack is quite separate from the image. And so Costa has some of the cranky monologues being delivered by Huillet matched with the footage they’re looking at — or maybe not looking at, given that we only hear their voices much of the time (and it would appear, from what I’ve subsequently read, that in fact Straub’s comments are being addressed to unseen students) — meaning that the final film is every bit as much a construction as the one Straub and Huillet are working on.

If as a film this makes it sound particularly slow and difficult to watch, then it is at least leavened by humour, as the two older filmmakers (a married couple) bicker incessantly and amusingly at each other’s contributions. Or rather, it is Huillet who is more often heard grumpily telling off Straub for his meandering monologues and for some of his interventions to the editing discussion. However, the rhythms of the film are certainly slower than most, as the faces of the filmmakers only dimly stand out from the gloom of their editing room, accompanied periodically by the deliberately-paced drama of their film. But for those with the patience, what results is a beautiful work. In some senses, it’s a film about love in one’s declining years (Huillet died five years after this film was released), whether that be love between two people or a love for one’s métier, in this case filmmaking. It’s an elegy for what’s been lost — the craft of Huillet on her archaic apparatus, or the strangely spectral images seemingly from another era as projected on the editing machine — and for its power to still affect us. But it’s the single-minded focus on the craft of making a film that shines through most of all, as Straub and Huillet argue over the exact frame where a gesture or an emotion begins in their actors, or Straub angrily sounds off about filmmakers who have lost his respect (Woody Allen and John Cassavetes are mentioned).

It’s a curious documentary then, but a beautiful one, that captures something of the essence of cinema itself through its blend of an inky dark canvas punctured by flashes of light, manipulated film footage, and the absolute focus of its filmmakers. It may not make you appreciate Straub and Huillet’s films any more, but it makes you respect their earnest devotion to their art.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? film posterCREDITS
Director Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 9 January 2014.

Centro Histórico (2012)

The portmanteau film (or ‘anthology’ if you will) is a curious phenomenon, which had perhaps a bit more prominence in the 1960s when packages of trendy young(ish) directors were put together with titles like Paris vu par… (1965) or RoGoPaG (1963). In more recent times, aside perhaps from New York Stories (1989) and the occasional celebration-of-cinema package, they’ve never really attained much prominence, and have been rather restricted to arts-festival-friendly themed offerings such as this one, which was made to coincide with the 2012 European Capital of Culture being awarded to Guimarães in Portugal. This all conspires to make Centro Histórico a little bit obscure (and unlikely to find much of a release in any form anywhere outside its country of origin), though its four directors are all relative heavyweights in the European art film world — and indeed the film was originally scheduled to include a fifth short by Jean-Luc Godard (though his has since been appended to another similar film themed around 3D). It was given a special screening recently at the BFI with two of the directors present (Pedro Costa and Víctor Erice), which I attended.

As curios go, it certainly has its moments. The first short, “O Tasqueiro” (Tavern Man) by deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (who apparently has a home in Portugal), is probably the most accessible. It’s a slight and wordless sketch following the proprietor of a struggling tavern in the historical city centre, whose hangdog face (that of actor Ilkka Koivula) perfectly conveys his mounting troubles in attracting the passing trade. The tavern here is reminiscent of the restaurant opened in the same director’s Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996) — and there’s a similar, very lugubrious, comedic undertone to the style.

The film is bookended by another wryly comedic short piece by veteran director Manoel de Oliveira — and when I say veteran, I do of course mean that: he’s the only living director whose career started in the silent era. His film, “O Conquistador, Conquistado” (The Conqueror, Conquered), follows a tour group as they trek through the historic centre of Guimarães, looking up at the statue of Alfonso I, the first King of Portugal. It comes at the end of Centro Histórico but comprises something of an introduction to the city itself, which for various reasons is considered the birthplace of Portuguese nationality.

One of the themes that Oliveira’s film deals with — the wayward travails of historical consciousness and memory — is touched upon by the other two shorts, both of which are significantly longer. That by Spanish director Víctor Erice, “Vidros Partidos” (Broken Windows), is the more seemingly straightforward (deceptively so, one might say), presenting itself as a documentary encounter with people whose lives had been shaped by a textile mill just outside the city, closed 10 years earlier. Erice films the interviews in its former canteen, from slightly below eye level, and with the interviewee’s heads loomed over by a huge reproduction of a vintage photo of the factory’s workers sitting down for lunch. It gradually becomes clear that these personal testimonies are scripted, drawing into question quite what role memory and local history plays in their lives.

Finally, there’s Pedro Costa’s rather oblique piece, “Lamento da Vida Jovem” (Sweet Exorcist), most of which is taken up by his regular actor Ventura (who hails from the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde) trapped after a hillside pursuit in an elevator, addressing offscreen voices ostensibly coming from the statue of a soldier (another actor, albeit one painted bronze and who holds an ever-shifting statuesque pose). It’s all rather strange and surreal, and is apparently a shorter piece from a new feature film Costa is working on. However, the dialogue again touches on the troubling echoes of national history, specifically as filtered through immigration and race. I couldn’t possibly try to sum it up any more accurately, as it’s dense with references which pass over my head, and I can only hope that seeing it again in its feature context will bring it to greater life.

For what it’s doing, this compilation is successful, but I can’t deny that the portmanteau film as a form remains a rarefied pleasure, which to me feels like a sort of ‘arthouse cinema 101’ — a taster to the styles of various established world directors. If you have a chance to see it, or even any of its individual short films, you may find something to your taste, but I can’t help think that it’s a drawback of the form that, even at its best, such a film cannot deliver the feeling of satisfaction that a good feature film can.

Centro Histórico film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Aki Kaurismäki; Pedro Costa; Víctor Erice; Manoel de Oliveira; Cinematographers Timo Salminen; Costa and Leonardo Simões; Valentín Álvarez; Francisco Lagrifa Oliveira; Starring Ilkka Koivula, Ventura; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 5 January 2014.