Reviews

Three Important Films Shot in the Impoverished Fontainhas Neighborhood in Lisbon

From Ossos

As the Portuguese director Pedro Costa's work shows, 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.


Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth

Director: Pedro Costa
Cast: Vanda Duarte, Zita Duarte, Ventura, Nuno Vaz, Mariya Lipkina
Distributor: Criterion
Release Date: 2010-03-30
“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

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

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”.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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