Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa DVD Review

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<i>Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa</i> DVD Review

Release Date: Available Now
Director: Pedro Costa
Starring: Vanda Duarte, Lena Duarte, Zita Duarte, Pedro Laban, António Moreno
Cinematographer: Costa, Emmanuel Machuel
Studio/Run Time: Criterion, 429 min.

More than anything, Pedro Costa’s films are beautiful.

Not postcard-pretty or rapturously afire, but composed in ways that make the incidental feel revelatory. Shot in rudimentary conditions over long periods of time, often shrouded in darkness and framed as stationary tableaux, the imagery evokes the Old Masters and lingers in your memory. His films rethink narrative as a kind of osmosis—mysteriously gathering substance out of glances and reveries, yet grounded in the harsh realities of the marginalized lower class.

The works that make up the Portuguese director’s Fontainhas Trilogy—Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006)—could be social experiments. They take root in the outskirts of Lisbon, in the slums of Fontainhas, populated by Cape Verdean immigrants whose bombed-out urban shantytown is slowly being demolished. That the inhabitants of this penumbral limbo are junkies, prostitutes, day laborers, petty criminals and infants could make for some kind of raw, handheld documentary or romanticized meta-fiction about the lower depths of society. But Costa knows how boring that would be. Critics have been tempted to make comparisons with everyone from Andy Warhol to Robert Bresson, but no one has seen films quite like these before.

Series opener Ossos (1997) is the shortest and the most conventionally structured. It involves a compassionate nurse (Isabel Ruth, Portugal’s answer to Meryl Streep), the young junkie father (Nuno Vaz) she takes in as an adoptive son, a suicidal mother and a baby that survives her various attempts to kill or abandon it. More ostensibly dramatic than its successors, the film unfolds in a series of elliptical observations that have a documentarian realism, even though the non-professional cast worked from a script.

With the series’ next two films, Costa proves himself more punk-rock than Lars von Trier and tosses away almost everything but his digital camera. (Viewers curious about the process can check out a generous disc of special features included in this four-DVD box set.) Edited down from years of shooting, In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) focus on specific characters playing versions of themselves. Take Vanda (Vanda Duarte), a heroin addict whose daily rituals provide a kind of social order amidst the chaos of the Fontainhas slums. The walls are literally tumbling down around Costa’s subjects, who nonetheless go about domestic matters in their dilapidated quarters. The camera takes on an ambient consciousness—sometimes, individuals are barely more than an outline in the darkness; sometimes a shaft of sunlight illuminates a table of artifacts in a painterly manner. But even at its most minimalistic, the film constantly arcs back to Vanda, and the pervasive chatter that crackles through the plaster walls around her.

Colossal Youth (an inspired title that has no relationship to the Young Marble
Giants album) picks up a few years later, after the Fontainhas slums have been demolished and its denizens set up in a new, antiseptic high-rise housing project. Vanda abides, as conversational as before, but Costa’s camera now focuses on another character. Ventura is a tall, elegant, retired Cape Verdean laborer with a haunted gaze. He walks through Lisbon and the project’s blank white apartments, a paternal figure checking on old friends from Fontainhas, carrying a letter to the wife who left him years before. The spellbinding words, recited by Ventura, are borrowed from the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos (who died of typhus shortly after being liberated from a Czech concentration camp in 1945). This evokes an enigmatic tone, aided by Ventura’s wounded gravitas and the way his striking form finds an iconic posture against stark backdrops serrated by shadows.

Every mouth is a book in this spiritual diaspora. Where the story begins or ends is unclear, but the telling is clearly an act of survival.