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).

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.

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.