A Desperate Utopian Dream - Pedro Costa: an Introduction

By Mark Peranson

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

Pedro Costa is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, at very least one of the most relevant, and there’s nothing wilfully perverse in my statement. Watching his work gives me the chills; it’s a most mysterious, unusual, and unclassifiable oeuvre, one littered with ghosts of the past and the present. So, why have many cinephiles not heard of him? The greatest problem in assessing Costa may be the relative unavailability of his work. For the longest time, Casa de Lava (1995) and Ossos (1997) were rarely shown due to their ownership by Paolo Branco’s Gemini Films, he of exorbitant screening fee notoriety. The three-hour long In Vanda’s Room (2000) – an unremitting, disturbing, yet empowering portrait of a community of Portuguese junkies led by Costa’s muse Vanda Duarte, whom he found on the streets and cast as one of Ossos’ leads – rarely screens, I suppose, because of its somewhat accurate reputation as a severe work. (The not-to-be overlooked Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001), a.k.a. “the Straub film,” can only show with the permission of Arte, who commissioned the work.)

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

All this is in the process of changing. The Cannes success of Colossal Youth – and it was a success – will spawn further interest in Costa’s oeuvre. From the first frame of each film, it’s apparent we’re in the company of that rare filmmaker who simply cares about people, about who his subjects are, about what they’re feeling and thinking, and, just as crucially, what his viewers are thinking about them. Each film is riddled with enticing close-ups – many from that first shot – and Costa’s pictorial attention (coming out of a sensibility equally at home with European fine art as, say, the dust bowl photography of Walker Evans) is a constant wonder. These subjects are for the most part the downtrodden Portuguese inhabitants of a slum called Fontaínhas, people literally overlooked by the dominant cultures, ghosts to us all. He’s not trying to rub their misery in his viewers’ faces; rather, the progression in Costa’s cinema is to give voice to his subjects, to treat them as worthy of existing as fictional characters (in Ossos); then, to delve further into their world, their personalities, their actual way of living (In Vanda’s Room); and now, with great success, combining the two (Colossal Youth).

Costa finds the richness possible in small variations, and his progression has led to a narrowing of both subject matter and spatial exploration. From the wide open, Monument Valley-esque cracked volcanic surface of Cape Verde, Costa has retreated to interiors; the benefit of seeing Casa de Lava is in realising how Costa’s characters must now feel, cramped in their dishevelled surroundings. Combined with his movement towards a long-take style, this signals a shift from a cinema of space to a cinema of time. A parallel trend is an attempt to redefine beauty in cinematic terms, leading from the exquisite monochrome 35mm of O sangue to the grubby, purposeful DV of In Vanda’s Room, and its staggeringly beautiful use (with Costa’s remarkable compositional eye) in Colossal Youth. This is also apparent in Costa’s use of sound. Few contemporary filmmakers are as concerned with the juxtaposition of the image and the soundtrack, and each of Costa’s films sees the filmmaker experimenting, trying out new ways of seeing and hearing: in Colossal Youth, the sound is a better narrative guide than what we see the characters doing, and makes the long-take style a necessity.

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

Yet the more these films seem to be within one’s grasp, the more they start to slip away from comprehension, and Costa seems to be saying the same thing about the world today: he treats the outside world as a labyrinth, with the domestic arena a place that provides much needed shelter. He’s surely something of a Brechtian modernist (with Godard as perhaps his greatest influence, even more than Straub), yet it’s tempting to assign the modifier of “post” to try and start understanding Costa. His persistent interrogation of the way people live, a style of domestic filmmaking, is certainly post-Ozu. As Jeff Wall notes in his commentary on the Ossos DVD, Costa can also be considered post-Bressonian, in the sense that he actually improves on what some find problematic in the master’s late works, namely his tendency to turn his models into intense abstractions; Costa corrects this, adding a sense of disorder, the uncleanliness of the real world. The category that Costa might most willingly endorse is that of a post-punk filmmaker.

One final, crucial note: as Costa describes, the themes in the films are also highly personal. A search for family, for home, runs throughout, a desire for a community that merges the personal and the political. And with his subjects, he’s found that missing family, only one of many reasons why Colossal Youth is so touching. He’s also developed an alternative, collaborative model of filmmaking that is radical yet very much replicable, and will generate disciples – provided a generous filmmaker is willing to devote the time needed to nurture similar relationships with his or her actors. Even if Costa ‘only’ continues to make films about downtrodden Portuguese people, exploring, to quote the Viennale guide, a “desperate utopian dream of a human existence,” it’s a new form of cinema that will continue to reverberate, echo, and grow richer with each variation. The avenues of inquiry are innumerable.

Pedro Costa will be in conversation on Friday 25th April at the Ciné Lumière of London’s Institut Français before a screening of Colossal Youth, which will show there until Wed 30 April. His work is available in various forms on dvd. A complete retrospective will take place at Tate Modern in 2009.

Mark Peranson is Editor of the essential Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope [www.cinema-scope.com], from which this profoundly edited version of his major assessment of, and interview with, Costa, is taken. Thanks to him, to Ricardo Matos Cabo and all at London’s Institut Français.