Colossal Youth

By David Balfour

colossal-youth-pedro-costa.jpgColossal Youth, 2006

When discussing films, too often undue emphasis is given to vision of the director at the expense of the collaborative and creative efforts of the other key talents who bring their skills to bear on a movie. Examination of the ‘director’s vision’ in relation to Colossal Youth however, is one of the rare examples where such talk can go unfettered by condition or fear of undue bias against others work. The director Pedro Costa conceived, constructed, shot and edited this film almost entirely alone. What remains is a truly remarkable work from a man of unique vision.

This film forms the end of a loose trilogy centred on a marginalised community. The actors are non-professionals and come from a slum on the outside of Lisbon. Pedro Costa has spent countless days with its inhabitants over the past 10 years – documenting and getting into the heart of their lives. This film came from a 15 month shoot. The resulting 320 hours of film he shot is, however, no traditional verite-style assemblage of observation. It lives between documentary and fiction.

While it is hard to pinpoint what the film is exactly, it is also unnecessary. The film provides its own answers to what it is. Such answers are entirely the work of the director. He may use reality as his material to craft his film, but his investigations take on metaphysical quality.

colossal-youth-pedro-costa-2.jpgColossal Youth, 2006

The film follows an aging man, Ventura, who has just been left by a woman (who may or may be his wife – but whatever she is she has affected him). They lived in slum that is being renovated. All the old shanty buildings are being torn down. The squalid yet beautiful rooms and streets are being replaced by tall, white impersonal buildings. The contrast between the crumbling but atmospheric old quarter and the pristine but characterless new complex is at the heart of the film.

This type dislocation to gentrification is being experienced of many communities across the globe and even here in Britain. The poor are being reshuffled. In London the 10,000 houses around Elephant & Castle are being destroyed. The inhabitants and communities scattered to various far-flung parts of their borough. In Colossal Youth, as clean as the new ones buildings are I couldn’t help but thinking that in 20 years time they too will become squalid and run down as the slums – but perhaps not so beautiful with it.

colossal-youth-pedro-costa-3.jpgColossal Youth, 2006

For Costa this process of forced moving draws attention to common feelings of emptiness and longing. Ventura is fighting the emptiness of these new buildings but also within himself. This emptiness connects all the characters share. Ventura, abandoned his woman, is being forced to move into a new block. And so the film traces him as he moves between new and old houses and between friends and those he knows in the area. He calls them his children, and they call him Papa, but like the woman who left him they probably aren’t his children. But in these meetings, they tell each other stories and reflect on their lives – all of which seem in the shadow of things in the past. In the shadow of their youth and of their hope. The mood of the film is somewhere between Beckett and Bresson; between paring down and not needing add anything to what is already there has in order to create.

The slums are shot in a sumptuous way – making most of a sensuous chiaroscuro light. The new towers are filmed in a stark manner that makes building into sculptures that dwarf humans. Inside them, the rooms are white, washed out, and without soul; attempts to bring a human touch to these rooms feels marginal and futile – a lacy curtain, a small statue, and chandelier.

colossal-youth-4.jpgColossal Youth, 2006

The film is shot on DV with natural light and ambient sound. Pedro Costa favours the long take, with little coverage. Here scenes are of silence punctuated by dialogue. Watching it has been described as an endurance test. Where it has been shown it has prompted many walk outs, and at 155 minutes it challenges and demands much of its viewer.

It will divide those see it, even those who stay with it. The sense of dislocated in time and place is unique. The effect of the film is cumulative. There hypnotic quality comes from a combination of locations, concept, and Ventura with his beautiful weather beaten face, grace movement and resonant voice. I long to see more of Ventura. It’s a remarkable journey that will provide succour to those seeking exotic tastes. This is a treat for those who crave a cinema of difficulty and pain. It creates new aesthetic Bresson 2.0 ready for the digital age of the handicam.

Colossal Youth plays exclusively at the Cine Lumiere.

David Balfour is a writer and producer based in London.