Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy (1997-2006)

Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy ****
Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006)
Directed by: Pedro Costa.
Written by: Pedro Costa.
Starring (Ossos): Vanda Duarte (Clotilde), Nuno Vaz (The Father), Mariya Lipkina (Tina), Isabel Ruth (Eduarda), Inês de Medeiros (Whore), Miguel Sermão (Clotilde's Husband).
Starring (In Vanda’s Room): Vanda Duarte, Zita Duarte, Pedro Lanban, Antonio Moreno, Paulo Nunes, Pernardo Paixao.
Starring (Colossal Youth): Ventura, Vanda Duarte, Beatriz Duarte, Gustavo Sumptu, Cila Cardoso, Isabel Munuz Cardoso, Alberto Barros.

Pedro Costa is one of those filmmakers whose name always pops up in those upscale film magazines – like Film Comment and Cinema Scope – but whose films never actually open in North America. Unless you’ve seen his films at festivals, you probably don’t get a chance to see them at all in the theater. I was lucky enough to see his 2006 film, Colossal Youth, at the Ontario Cinematechnique back in 2007, and although the film is undoubtedly slow, I found it fascinating and mesmerizing, all the time knowing that I did not fully understand it. I sought that film out because of Film Comment and Cinema Scope (Cinema Scope actually featuring it on its covered of its 2006 Cannes Festival coverage) because I had read so much about it, but had not had a chance to see it. Unfortunately, I did not see Costa’s other films during that retrospective, and it wasn’t until recently that they have become available on DVD – again perhaps because of those magazines. Cinemascope elected Costa’s 2000 film In Vanda’s Room as the second best film of the decade, and also included Colossal Youth on their best of list of only 16 films. Film Comment had Colossal Youth at 28 and In Vanda’s Room at 42 on their decade ending list, and listed Costa as the 12th best director of the decade. When TIFF did their list, Youth ended up at 16 and Vanda at 18. This is remarkable when you consider that neither of those films ever received a theatrical release in North America – and at the time the surveys were done, were not even available on DVD over here. So, having seen Colossal Youth, I decided to go back and watch Costa’s other films in the so called Fontainhas trilogy, which includes In Vanda’s Room and Ossos (1997) – and ended up watching Colossal Youth again, this time with a much deeper understanding of the film.

Watching the films over the course of a weekend is to see Costa grow as a filmmaker from one film to the next. In many ways, the three films are similar, and yet in other ways they are remarkably different. Yet, you get the sense that in order to make the next film, he needed to go through the previous film to get there – to hone his style, and figure out precisely what works. It is also to see Fontainhas, a slum on the edge of Lisbon, get completely destroyed, as the poverty stricken residents, who have formed a sort of rough community or family, is torn down and the residents moved off into brightly painted, sterile, cheap apartments elsewhere.

Of the three, Ossos is the most conventional film. Costa shot it on 35mm film, and even though he cast the people he met in Fontainhas, they are all playing characters – some thinly veiled versions of themselves, some not. Costa has sighted Robert Bresson as an influence, and it’s easy to see that filmmaker in this film – from the non professional actors, often with stone faces, to the rhythm of everyday life, to the tragic finale of the film, it does seem like Bresson is in ways channeling Bresson. The film is utterly gorgeous, full of wonderful tracking shots and memorable images, and its depiction of poverty is heartbreaking. It’s only after we’ve moved on to the other Costa films that we realize what Ossos was missing – the rawness of the area. On film, it looks too clean, too much like any other slum we’ve seen in a movie. Costa very well could have followed Ossos with other films like it, and he could have become much more popular than he is had he done so (the film did win some prizes at International Festivals and was a box office hit in Portugual). The film in some ways reminded me not just of Bresson but of the Dardenne brothers, who are among the most popular and acclaimed filmmakers in Europe right now. Costa was clearly not at their level when he made Ossos – which despite how good it is, and it is very, very good, it still shows the signs of a slightly immature director.

Instead of following that path however, Costa followed another one – one that took him deeper into Fontainhas than any other director would have dared to go. While filming Ossos, which was a professional production with a big camera, a lighting crew and everything that goes along with it, Costa felt he wasn’t capturing the area or its people the way he should be. His star, Vanda Duarte, invited him to spend time with her and her sister in her room – where all they do is talk and take drugs. So after he finished Ossos, that precisely what he did. He bought a digital camera, and went back to Fontainhas, and shot hours and hours of footage of Vanda, her sister Zita, and the various people they come in contact with. It started out as a documentary, but Costa felt that wasn’t working either. The result is not a scripted movie in any sense, but isn’t really a documentary either. It is something in between, impossible to categorize, and ended up being In Vanda’s Room.

In Vanda’s Room, as the title implies, takes place almost entirely in Vanda’s room – a small, cramped, space where, as Vanda promised, all they really do is talk and take drugs – in their case, smoke heroin. Filmed by himself, with a digital camera, the film has a stark look to it. The only lighting in the film comes through the few windows and doors in the various rooms they are in. Often, the people keep them closed to avoid the light, so we get shafts of light lighting these people. The digital camera works better than the film camera did at capturing these people and their lives – its less intrusive. If Ossos reminds one of a Bresson film, than In Vanda’s Room certainly resembles a family drama by Ozu. There are no tracking shots, no real camera movement at all, as Costa simply lets the scenes play out in front of him. These simple scenes – often done in long shots, but also quite often in close up, show a sympathy and understanding of these people that I doubt another director would try and achieve. He understands these people, and loves them, even as he watches them destroy themselves. Yes, the movie, as some critics have pointed out, is beautiful – and so in a way, Costa is making poverty beautiful, but I don’t see that as a flaw. These people, who should be so miserable, aren’t. Yes, there is heartbreak, like in an unforgettable scene where Vanda and a friend talk about the death of someone they knew. During the course of the filming, Fontainhas has already started to be destroyed – we see bulldozers come in and destroy some of the houses. The destruction of the area is under way.

Which brings us to Colossal Youth, which in my mind is Costa’s best film. Costa presented Vanda Duarte in the way she needed to be portrayed in In Vanda’s Room, and so when he “discovered” Ventura, and decided to make him the centerpiece of Colossal Youth, he needed to change a little to make sure he captured this larger than life person in the proper way. The result is a film that is more fictionalized than In Vanda’s Room, and yet still entirely accurate. The film contains flashbacks to an earlier time in Ventura’s life, but the film doesn’t give us any indication that it is flashing back, other than a bandage on Ventura’s head. Ventura has been described by some critics as a “King without a Kingdom”, and that seems accurate. He refers to the residents of Fontainhas as his children, although obviously, they are not all his children. In the film’s opening scene, his wife is leaving him, and all of his stuff is being thrown out a window. From there, Ventura tells his story – through repetition by Costa, who shots again with a digital camera, using the light in the area, and again, creates some of the starkest, most memorable images of any film this decade.

I referenced Bresson in regards to Ossos, and Ozu is regards to In Vanda’s Room. But for Colossal Youth, the reference seems completely different – John Ford. This isn’t to say that the film is action packed, but it contains some of Ford’s hallmarks – Ventura and others are often framed in doorways, much like Ford used to do. And Ventura seems to be doomed to history, even as he is living it. Costa has sighted Sergeant Rutledge, one of Ford’s lesser films, as an influence for the way it portrayed Woody Strode. And with that in mind, Colossal Youth takes on other dimensions. It is a tragedy in the grandest sense. By the end of Colossal Youth, Fontainhas has been completely destroyed, its residents scattered, their family ripped apart. At least Vanda seems to be doing better – a new boyfriend, a new baby, and she appears to be clean. We can only hope. For Ventura, this tragedy is greater – he has lost everything, and yet is determined to still try to live as he did before.

I have to admit that most people will probably not like these films. When I saw Colossal Youth back at the Cinematechnique in 2007, which is usually a fairly adventurous crowd, I would estimate that at least half of the audience walked out of the film well before it ended. The films, especially In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth are slow and methodical – perhaps even slower and more methodical than the work of Tarkovsky. Yet they are also makeup one of the most distinctive cinematic journeys in recent film history. Costa challenges us to see these people, with all their flaws as they are. To feel sympathy for them, to love them like he does, or like the people who walked out of Colossal Youth, to completely ignore them. How one responds to these films says more about them, then it does about Costa or the people who inhabit his films.

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