LETTERS FROM FONTAINHAS: THREE FILMS BY PEDRO COSTA: THE CRITERION COLLECTION - DVD review

Nobody has an excuse for not knowing Pedro Costa now. So watch, enjoy, become a better person.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

Pedro Costa's Fontanhais trilogy is such a sprawling, richly-detailed project it inspires a seemingly endless number of comparisons. The critics (also seemingly endless in numbers) who have contributed to Criterion's stunning boxed set offer the following reference points for Costa's work: Robert Bresson, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Jacques Tourneur, King Lear, Rembrandt, Carl Dreyer, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol, and post-punk rock.

By saying that Costa's film are "like" so many artists spanning the audiovisual spectrum, critics are, of course, saying that Costa's films are really unlike anything else. They aren't even like one another. Though all three features share the same setting and some of the same actors, "Ossos" (1997), "In Vanda's Room" (2000), and "Colossal Youth" (2006) are radically different films that provide testament to an artist grasping for the proper idiom to express a deeply personal, profoundly ethical cinema.

The shared setting is so fundamental to the structure of each film, however, that they must inevitably be considered of one piece. Fontainhas is (was) a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon populated mostly by Cape Verdean immigrants and impoverished Portuguese citizens. Drug addiction is rampant and job prospects are poor. Costa first discovered Fontainhas after he shot a film in Cape Verde called "Casa de Lava" (1994.) After he finished shooting, many of the locals asked him to take back letters to friends and family in Fontainhas. He quickly became enamored of the people, the buildings and especially the sounds of the vibrant community. The boxed set could just as easily be titled "(Love) Letters (to) Fontainhas."

After spending much of his time there, Costa decided to set "Ossos" in Fontainhas, cast entirely with neighborhood residents. Tina (Maria Lipkina) has recently given birth and is in the throes of a debilitating depression, whether post-partum or not we don't know. The father (Nuno Vaz) does nothing to help. He is so worn down (by life, by drugs) he sometimes collapses to the floor as if narcoleptic. Mustering just enough energy to leave the house, he tries to sell the baby though his version of "trying" anything barely constitutes an effort, let alone a plan. Meanwhile Tina's more vital neighbor Clotilde (Vanda Duarte) pitches in to provide whatever assistance she can, undaunted by the prospect of facing an unwinnable battle.

"Ossos" is the most traditionally structured film in the trilogy, shot on 35 mm with a film crew and all the usual production accoutrements. It's also the film that most readily invites a single point of comparison: late period Bresson, most specifically "L'argent" (1983.) The comparison is made concrete by the fact that both "Ossos" and "L'argent" were shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel.

As in Bresson's final film, the actors in "Ossos" perform with a flat affect (Vanda Duarte's rare but radiant smile briefly pierces the veil of enervation), frequently look at the ground, and are often framed in doorways and windows. The film is edited elliptically with the story being told between cuts rather than on screen. This requires viewers to scramble to keep up, but it's worth the effort. The details of the plot are relatively unimportant anyway. It's the crisp images and the sounds that linger in the memory that matter most.

As in the other two films, Fontainhas is the co-star, featured both on-screen and, more prominently, off-screen. The sounds of everyday life punctuate each scene like a musical track. Conversations, footsteps, babies crying, radios blaring. You're never alone in Fontainhas even when you lock yourself in your room. This ambient sound track is one of the most remarkable features of the first two films and certainly one of the qualities that Costa values most about the neighborhood.

"Ossos" is an impressive work but Costa found himself dissatisfied with the traditional studio production methods. It seemed wrong, if not outright exploitive, to bring an expensive crew into a slum to capture a few shots and run off to edit a film. The large crew and the heavy equipment also made it difficult to truly experience Fontainhas as anything more than an interloper. So Costa, as he does with regularity, revamped his style for his next film.

Costa spent the next year visiting Fontainhas alone, mini-DV camera in hand, and simply spending time with the residents. Most of his time was spent with Vanda Duarte, the co-star of "Ossos" and the breakout sensation of the three films. Duarte has an electric personality and a gravelly voice that makes her one of the most remarkable performers I have ever seen. To cop an over-used phrase, she simply commands the screen.

"In Vanda's Room" is an immersion experience that hurtles viewers into the everyday lives of Vanda and her Fontainhas neighbors, lives which consists mostly of shooting up drugs and describing circles around the hermetically sealed community. As the straightforward title suggests, we spend a lot of time in Vanda's room watching her fumble with aluminum foil strips as she lights up her next hit. Watching someone chase the dragon for three hours might not sound like a lot of fun, but "In Vanda's Room" is not an exercise in squalor. Queen Vanda is visited by her subjects, her sister Zita and her friends, as she holds forth on a variety of subjects. Junkie she may be, but she's also sharp as a tack. Every now and then she takes a break to sell cabbage and lettuce to her neighbors. Nobody ever buys anything but she is somehow resourceful enough to scrape up the money for her next hit.

The sounds of Fontainhas feature even more prominently here than in "Ossos," but this time they are the sounds of destruction as the city has begun to tear down the creaky buildings as they prepare to relocate the residents (more on this in "Colossal Youth.") Rumbling, hammering, thudding all day long though none of these rival the film's most enduring sound: Vanda's relentless hacking cough. You'll never forget it.

"In Vanda's Room" has all the appearance of a documentary or at least a pseudo-documentary but this is all illusion. It takes a lot of rehearsal to sound spontaneous. Costa shot scenes dozens of times and added much of the sound in post-production to produce the precise effects he wanted. This is no fly-on-the-wall "non-fiction" and Costa doesn't subscribe to the blinkered notion that merely pointing a camera (even a lightweight DV camera) at the world means you automatically capture the truth. Precise composition and the use of evocative close-ups (did I mention that Vanda commands the screen?) are the means to the end here. And the end in this case is not a documentary, but a kind of screwball apocalypse though you have to sit with the movie for a while before you see the humor. Fontainhas is crumbling down around them but if it's the end of the world as they know it, the locals feel fine.

The digital video of "In Vanda's Room" is simultaneously grubby and beautiful, but with his next film Costa produced the most aesthetically accomplished (I almost used the word "perfect") digital movie I have ever seen. "Colossal Youth" can best be described as a revelation, both in terms of its story and its relationship to contemporary cinema. Costa abandons even the pretense of pseudo-documentary, instead transforming the quotidian into mythology.

Ventura (also the name the actor goes by) has been abandoned by his wife who stabbed him in the hand before leaving. Ventura's unwanted bachelorhood prompts him to go on an Odyssey to track down each of his children to tell them what happened. His quest is complicated by his hazy memory (prompted perhaps by a construction accident) that makes it difficult for him to remember who his children are, how many he has and who their respective mothers are.

Pardon me if you've heard this recently but Ventura is an actor who commands the screen. He is the low-key, ruminative counterpart to the feisty Vanda who appears here, in peak form, as one of Ventura's daughters. His long, lanky body and his unnaturally slow gait grant him an almost alien quality which Costa puts to great use in his most enigmatic film.

Filmed primarily from low-angle shots, Ventura towers over the film like, well, a colossus. (For the record, "Colossal Youth" is only the English translation of the title and is taken from an album by the Welsh post-punk band Young Marble Giants.) He is more inclined to deliver monologues than engage in conversation and frequently does so while staring at some distant point just beyond the camera; here the Straub-Huillet comparison is most apt; add Rossellini in his "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV" mode. Even when Ventura tells seemingly routine stories such as the construction work he did on the local museum, it is as if he is reciting ancient legends of epic journeys. Ventura repeatedly recites a letter that he wants to send to his wife, but never commits it to paper. Instead he builds on it with each iteration, adding a new line or paragraph each time, speaking the words so carefully he seems to be crafting a spell that will win her back.

Fontainhas is now a neighborhood on its way to extinction. Most of it has been torn down now and the city is busy relocating residents to brand new, all-white, all-identical apartments in blocky high rises. Naturally enough, "Colossal Youth" is a film of transitions and much of the movie occurs somewhere between worlds.

This is most keenly evident in the brilliant sequence where a real estate agent shows Ventura his new apartment. Unnaturally bright light, completely blown out on the digital video, streams in from the window as the slim silhouette of Ventura reaches up to touch the ceiling. In another shot, the two dark-skinned men wearing dark suits are framed against a blurry all-white background, calling up memories of many a purgatory "waiting room" scene from films past. What should be a banal tour of a featureless apartment is transformed into a mystical journey with equal parts awe and horror. I've watched the scene five times already and it amazes more with each viewing.

I chose "Colossal Youth" as my favorite film of the decade when we conducted our poll at DVDTown. As is invariably the case with the films I feel most strongly about, it's difficult to quantify what makes the movie so powerful. Its mysteries are affective precisely because they are mysteries and rigorous analysis threatens to diffuse them. Suffice it to say that since I first saw in 2006 at the Toronto International Film Festival, I have thought about it hundreds of times since then, and my second viewing on DVD has done nothing to change my previous judgment.

One thing's for certain though. "In Vanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth" should assuage any concerns that purist fuddy-duddies like me have about cinema in the digital age. "Colossal Youth" is one of the most beautiful films in recent memory. Costa's use of light is unparalleled in the digital medium and has only a few peers in the chemical equivalent. It's too early to tell if "Vanda" and "Colossal Youth" will prove to be milestones in the digital age or historical anomalies but they provide reason for optimism.

VIDEO

"Ossos" is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It was restored from the original 35mm negative and has been cleaned up with the usual Criterion proficiency. Contrast is fairly rich though the film looks dark in general but that's how it's supposed to look.

"In Vanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth" are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Both were shot on DV and have been color corrected from the original digital video. Comparing the corrected version of "Colossal Youth" to the badly worn (why? It's only 4 tears old) Japanese Trailer included on the disc, it appears that some of the color correction has been substantial. It was all supervised by Costa so we can assume it looks as he intended it to.

It can take a little time to adjust to the "video-ish" quality of "In Vanda's Room." This isn't HD, but regular old mini-DV quality. Outdoor light often looks too blown out and contrast isn't always sharp, but once you settle into the rhythm and feel of the movie, everything works just right. It has a down and dirty look that suits the material.

"Colossal Youth" was also shot on DV but looks more polished, perhaps because the lighting is so much more elegant. It's quite lovely, really.

AUDIO

All three movies are presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The soundtrack in all three films is very complex as the sounds of Fontainhas are constantly heard in the background, particularly in the first two movies. The mix is rich and detailed and captures the "business" of the neighborhood quite well. I don't recall how "Colossal Youth" sounded when I saw it theatrically, but everything seems ship-shape here. Optional English subtitles support the Portuguese audio.

EXTRAS

Criterion has obviously taken the responsibility of introducing Pedro Costa to a Region 1 audience very seriously. This boxed set is simply loaded with extras.

The "Ossos" disc features a conversation with Pedro Costa and filmmaker-scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin (33 min) which was recorded in New York in August 2009 for the Criterion Collection. This is just one excerpt of what must have been a far-ranging conversation which is used on all three of the DVDs. Gorin prods with a few incisive questions and lets the eloquent Costa hold court at length.

The disc also includes a video essay by contemporary artist Jeff Walls (13 min.) Walls analyzes the photography in "Ossos" and his audio commentary is accompanied by images from the film.

The "Ossos" disc also includes an interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel, recorded in 2004 (8 min.) and an interview with João Bénard Da Costa (9 min.) Da Costa died last year. He was the head of the Portuguese Cinematheque in Lisbon and was a big supporter of Pedro Costa. His comments on "Ossos" were originally recorded in 2004.

Finally, the disc includes a gallery of 16 photographs by Mariana Viegas.

But that's just the start.

"In Vanda's Room" is the only film that is accompanied by a commentary track. The commentary here is a continuation of the conversation between Costa and Gorin and represents quite an undertaking for a 3 hour film. I obviously didn't have time to listen to the entire commentary but the first half hour suggests that it's well worth a listen.

This disc also includes a Gallery of 13 photographs by Richard Dumas.

The "Colossal Youth" disc offers only another conversation between Costa and Gorin (23 min.)

Is that all? What a ripoff. Oh wait, we haven't gotten to the separate Supplements Disc yet.

The fourth disc offers 200 minutes of extras features.

Most exciting are two short films by Pedro Costa from 2007: "Tarrafal" (18 min.) and "The Rabbit Hunters" (23 min.) Both films tell a similar story, but from different perspectives and both feature Ventura from "Colossal Youth" as a major supporting player. They also resemble "Youth" in style. "Tarrafal" was filmed for the omnibus feature "The State of the World." "The Rabbit Hunters" was filmed in South Korea for the omnibus feature "Memories."

Selected commentary from "Colossal Youth" is also included. Critic Cyril Neyrat and author-critic Jacques Rancière analyze five scene from the film, including the "white room" sequence I raved about above. It's a rather animated commentary and I enjoyed it immensely even when I thought Rancière got a bit carried away at times.

The lengthiest feature on the disc is the documentary "All Blossoms Again" (2006, 81 min.) Directed by Aurélein Gerbault, the documentary follows Costa during the filming of "Colossal Youth." Regrettably, I have only had time to watch the first ten minutes, but I look forward to catching the rest of it soon.

The final feature is a museum installation piece called "Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female." Costa used additional footage from "In Vanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth" and placed them side-by-side on the screen at the same time, allowing viewers to edit them as they wished. It probably worked a lot better in the museum than it does on DVD but it's still an interesting curiosity. It is accompanied by a brief introduction from Costa.

Each disc is stored in its own keep case. All four keep cases are housed in a cardboard slipcase. The slipcase has Spine Number 508. The three discs with the films are numbered 509-511.

The substantive insert booklet is tucked into the sleeve of the Supplements disc. A lot of critics wanted in on this project and I wonder if this booklet sets a record for most separate authors included. The 44-page booklet kicks off with an overview essay by Cyril Neyrat and continues with an essay about Lisbon/Fontainhas by film programmer Ricardo Matos Cabo. Then we get essays about the individual films by author Luc Sante ("Ossos"), filmmaker Thom Andersen ("In Vanda's Room") and critic-programmer Mark Peranson ("Colossal Youth.") The booklet concludes with an essay by historian and translator Bernard Eisenschitz which discusses the two short films "Tarrafal" and "The Rabbit Hunters."

FILM VALUE

In a 2006 edition of the great film magazine "Cinema Scope," Mark Peranson famously exhorted readers to "Vote For Pedro (Costa, That Is.)" In his article, he wrote that "To say that Pedro Costa is one of the world's greatest filmmakers might sound like a provocation. But I have said it, and I will repeat it: Pedro Costa is one of the world's greatest filmmakers." If his claim was a provocation at the time, it was only because so few people had seen Costa's work. Even many top-line critics had not yet had an opportunity to see his seldom-distributed films. The success of "Colossal Youth" at Cannes in 2006 helped to change that, but his films have still remained difficult to see in America outside of an occasional retrospective.

Now Criterion has made these three marvelous, enigmatic films available to Region 1 viewers. This means that for a whole new audience Peranson's provocation will now read as an unproblematic statement of fact: "Of course he's one of the world's greatest filmmakers. He's Pedro Freaking Costa!"

Not only are the three films in this boxed set masterpieces, but the extras provided by Criterion are both exhaustive (I'm going to sleep for three days after writing this review) and very informative. Costa's work can be a bit daunting for some though I would not apply the damning labels "difficult" or "inaccessible" to any of them. The extras have been well chosen to contribute to the appreciation of Costa's modern masterpieces.

I spent several hours combing through the Criterion Collection titles before seeing, so this is not a thoughtless tout. "Letters from Fontainhas" is one of the greatest titles Criterion has ever released. If I could keep only one title from the entire collection, it would probably be this one. Yes, it's that good.

Nobody has an excuse for not knowing Pedro Costa now. So watch, enjoy, become a better person. It simply doesn't get any better than this.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
10
Film Value
10