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Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa

Director: Pedro Costa
Cast: Vanda Duarte, Zita Duarte, Ventura, Nuno Vaz, Mariya Lipkina

(US DVD: 30 Mar 2010)

“It’s not Fontainhas that I’m filming. It’s me in Fontainhas.”

“I wanted to tell a story that was too too far from my experience…I had this cliché idea from films, from novels…You’re not going to make a film about that world, you’re going to make the film about you and that world and it’s going to be about the relation…It’s not Fontainhas that I’m filming. It’s me in Fontainhas”.
  – Pedro Costa in an interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin


For a DVD box set devoted to a director uninterested in traditional narrative, Letters from Fontainhas tells a remarkably clear story. Its core is made up of three films – Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth – that the Portuguese director Pedro Costa shot in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon and were released from 1997 to 2006. To call the films a trilogy is not correct, but the story of their making is a meta-trilogy about the artistic process: construction, destruction, and synthesis.


In the accompanying essays, documentaries, and commentaries, the same plot points are touched upon: that Pedro Costa shot a movie called Ossos in the Fontainhas slums; that the film, in working within the conventions of an art house movie with a budget, somehow managed to miss something essential about the people and the place; that Costa returned with a DV camera and in the course of a few years developed a deep relationship with its inhabits using documentary techniques (In Vanda’s Room), and then stylized this process to create a crowning masterpiece (Colossal Youth).


By making Costa’s three artistic breakthrough films available for the first time to a US audience, along with various shorts and documentary material, Criterion explores in depth the career of an international artist and makes a strong case for his master status. Despite the wider availability of movies through subscription services, cable, and online sources, works by internationally acclaimed art house directors like Costa are still too often only viewable at film festivals and screening series. This is a groundbreaking collection and is a model for how a DVD packager can be relevant and vital as an artistic resource in the dawning age of streaming video.


Costa was introduced to Fontainhas through his second feature, Casa de Lava, which was shot in the former Portuguese colony Cape Verde. According to Cyril Neyrat in his essay, “Rooms for the Living and the Dead”, when returning to Portugal, “he [Costa] 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 shot his next feature there.


Ossos is about a destitute young couple struggling to take care of their baby. The mother Tina (Mariya Lipkina) is paralyzed by indecision and the disinterest of the father (Nuno Vaz). Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), a fierce presence, tries to give Tina direction and manage the relationship with the father. After Tina tries to commit suicide, the father takes the baby and wanders around Lisbon with it, his exact sympathies for the child never made clear.


For this film, Costa used a cinematographer, Emmanuel Machuel, who is known for shooting Robert Bresson’s later work. The images are stupendous with a strategic disconnect between the beauty of the images and their composition. The vibrant matte of the colors is especially strong. The influence of Renaissance and Dutch painting throughout Costa’s work is clear from the start. (It’s no wonder that the similarly referential photographer Jeff Wall contributes a photo essay to this disk.) Costa’s use of a patiently observant, still camera is reminiscent of Bresson. He uses off screen space to withhold information and suggest a world buzzing outside the frame. His close-ups are extraordinary.


The story anticipates the Dardenne’s L’enfant and its style of quasi-documentary modern realism while revealing its limitations. Ossos is not derivative, but it is working within an established framework of Bresson-derived European filmmaking. It is a step forward, but a relatively safe one. The narrative borders on the melodramatic and the muting of the story through ambiguity seems like a way of hiding its weaknesses, the predictability of cause and effect, to give it a patina of “art”.


There is a controlling, anal hand behind this artistry. The sound design can be hypersensitive to a fault, grating and loud. The dialogue is maddeningly strained and minimal. A typical conversation: “Where is she?” “I don’t know”. “She’s fine”. “No she’s not”. Costa robs the characters of their voice. He gives them the look of holy mutes, which is awfully close to holy fool.


The most misconceived character in Ossos is a middle class nurse who becomes entranced by the poor people she meets, and she enters the Fontainhas slums at the end. I interpreted this character as a stand-in for the audience and a critique of romanticizing poverty. At the start of In Vanda’s Room, I realized that perhaps that character was supposed to stand in for Costa as well. He had charged into the neighborhood with a professional crew and forced his story upon them.


After the shooting of Ossos, Costa returned to the neighborhood by himself with a video camera. Over two years he compiled footage and developed relationships with the people of the narrative, primarily Vanda’s family and a group of male heroin addicts.


His subsequent films could hardly be accused of robbing the subjects of their voices. In Vanda’s Room opens with one of many animated conversations between Vanda and her sister Zita as they smoke heroin on her bed. The movie is made up of endless monologues as the actors hash out life, tell stories, and explain their world.


The movie tracks the rhythms of their lives during this period: the routine of drug addiction, the maintaining of their homes, and the meager jobs they have created for themselves selling vegetables and flowers.


The difference in style and level of filmmaking is immediately apparent. There is a feeling of religiosity suffused throughout. Costa transposes a sense of the sacred to their everyday lives in a manner reminiscent of Vermeer. He uses natural and minimal light sources, like a reflecting mirror or a candle, to create a heavily textured look to the frame.


The sound techniques of Ossos – highlighting key off screen effects and music – are used to more subtle effect. Vanda’s retching cough is a persistent dissonant screech on the soundtrack. Songs emanating from the TV and radio like “Memory” and “I’ve Got the Power” provide commentary. During the period that Costa shot the movie, Fontainhas was being torn down to build public housing and the sounds of the construction gradually become more prominent throughout. Vanda says, “All this fucking noise is getting to me”.


From In Vanda's Room

From In Vanda’s Room


In Vanda’s Room is a tender yet unvarnished portrait of a neighborhood, neither exploitative nor condescending in its reverence. Though dirty and dangerous, the loss of the slums is still the loss of a home; the imagery captures their decrepitude to such a degree that they seem impossibly ancient. The misery of the lives being lived there, coupled with the destruction, gives the sense of looming catastrophe on many fronts. Vanda’s friend Nhurro says that life has shown him nothing but contempt, that he has been “Living in ghost houses…Living in houses not even a witch would live in”.


When Costa made Colossal Youth five years later, the destruction of Fontainhas was nearly complete. Vanda’s sister Zita has passed away and it can be assumed that many of the other junkies have died too. Costa concerns himself with how the survivors are dealing with the ghosts of the people and places that are being destroyed and left behind. He uses some of the documentary techniques of In Vanda’s Room and combines this “realism” with developed scenes and a more deliberate structure about destruction and rebirth. 


Vanda is now off heroin and on a methadone program. She has a daughter and her defining angular features have fleshed out; she looks drugged to exhaustion. She appears in this film as one of the “children” of the Cape Verdean immigrant Ventura. He visits these children in a cyclical fashion in the remaining Fontainhas tenements and the new housing projects.


There are new sources of imagery here: interiors are variously depicted with hallucinatory perspectives reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sets, the smudged black edges of a Goya painting; and the studied stillness, gray light of Rembrandt. He uses deep focus and low angle shots to give the actors a heroic mien.


Ventura is given a room in one of the new buildings and insists on getting one large enough for his family. The housing agent asks, “How many children do you have?” He responds, “I don’t know yet”. His “children” are nonexistent – either dead or unrelated – and stand-ins for the lost and confused souls (almost everyone speaks in long monologues, speaking to but not with one another) he wants to bring together to create a new community from the old.


He repeatedly tries to write a letter to his wife, urging her to come back to him and the text of the letter is a constantly shifting mash of Robert Desnos’s poetry, Costa’s writing, and Ventura’s improvisations: “I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes, a dozen fancy new dresses, a car, that little lava house you always dreamed of, and a 40-cent bouquet”.


From Colossal Youth

From Colossal Youth


Colossal Youth is part oral history, part mythic meditation, part social documentary. The feeling of meditative severity has deepened. Yet the suffocating confines of In Vanda’s Room have been replaced with an epic scope.


The first time I saw this movie I found it utterly depressing. I didn’t see that with all of the death there is the presence of youth and the hope that it implies. I didn’t see the overall arc of the story of the slum and the people and Costa’s development of the themes in his works. Vanda says, “Tomorrow I stop mourning. Enough is enough. It’s like I’m mourning for myself”.


Art is not always pretty and art does not give answers, but there is a process, like life, of destruction and creation that offers transcendence, however fleeting.


In an interview included in Letters from Fontainhas about Colossal Youth Costa says, “When we showed the film, all the neighborhood was thanking Ventura for the first time and a young man told him, ‘Ventura, it’s amazing. Every day I see you drunk and dirty around the neighborhood. And then I go to the movies and I see you, like, you’re amazing’. So that’s where we can make visible some things that sometimes people tend not to notice”.

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