The Colossal Cinema of Pedro Costa (Part One)

Part One of our three-part analysis of the cinema of Portuguese director Pedro Costa.

— By | May 10, 2010

While attending the 11th Annual Jeonju International Film Festival (which concluded this past Friday, on May 7th), I came into late contact with the cinema of Portuguese director Pedro Costa. Costa’s name has been bandied about by diligent, discerning cineastes since the beginning of the decade as the arrival of a visionary filmmaker whose cinema demands the strictest attention to its atomic motions and a similar participation in its latent unfolding. The recent 4-disc box set release by Criterion of Costa’s three major works, Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), was enough to solidify Costa’s growing status as a master filmmaker in the international scene. Costa’s work has been often described as “severe and…uncompromisingly difficult,” and though I expected the worst, I came away from his films overwhelmed with a heightened sense of the mythos that lies at the heart of the actual and the real — the transcendent reality which is already contained in the concrete. The cinema of Pedro Costa is indeed “colossal,” and though its progression has been a labor of glacial speed, its achievements are as far reaching as the giant steps of those who’ve practiced the unacknowledged art of vigilant forbearance.

For the sake of comparative study, and as a way of introduction, it will be instructive to analogize Costa’s artistic progress with the ascent of a completely different and far more conspicuous filmmaker, Lars von Trier (I find that analogies work best when the two subjects compared are as different in kind as possible). Many cinemagoers first learned of von Trier’s existence when Breaking the Waves (1996) emerged in the mainstream film market, earning the Grand Prix at Cannes and attracting multiple awards. There was a lot of talk of Dogme 95 and von Trier’s “vow of chastity,” and the later incarnations of The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) seemed to stamp von Trier as a dogged anti-aestheticist, a reductionist filmmaker pugnaciously uninterested in ‘pure cinematics.’ For this reason I found von Trier’s later work unflattering, the deconstructive projects of a director who seemed more involved in instigation and theatricality than in the lyrical possibilities of the camera.

Lars von Trier's "The Element of Crime"

It wasn’t until much later that I watched The Element of Crime (1984) and Europa (1991) — respectively, von Trier’s first and fourth feature-length films — and I was amazed to discover not only von Trier’s dizzying talent and erudition but also the length to which he had thoroughly exhausted ‘pure cinematics’ in a span of a few films. The later career of von Trier thus became rationalized and intelligible: the young director had basically cleansed himself of his film school idolatries (namely the influence of Tarkovsky, for whom he composed The Element of Crime) and had done it so consummately that he reduced his vision to elemental considerations and chose willingly to submit himself to strict counter-intuitive measures. The obstructions imposed by Dogme 95, though appearing fatuous to the degree that manifestos unavoidably become, at best helped von Trier wean himself off what was unnatural or artificial in him. Thus, von Trier became von Trier.

Lars von Trier's "Europa"

Pedro Costa’s career can be seen in the same light. His first film, O Sangue (1989), is also the product of a preternaturally gifted filmmaker demonstrating an advanced cinephilia. O Sangue is poetic overload, an assembly of rapturous images tied together by a loose narrative involving the breakup of a family, in which every shot — to paraphrase Jonathan Rosenbaum — is declared an event of lyrical magnitude. If one were to watch the film with no knowledge of its period, it is conceivable to fully believe it was made in the 1950s, a lost gem of the poetic-neorealist tradition. The rich 35mm monochrome (lensed in a milky light by Martin Schafer, who was recommended to Costa by Robby Müller) announces the selectivity of a director in love with the classical texture and pristine surfaces of Fritz Lang’s noir films (Costa cites The Big Heat and The Secret Beyond the Door as primary models of inspiration, but one also senses traces of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night).

Pedro Costa's "O Sangue"

If one were to begin latterly with Costa’s filmography, especially by watching In Vanda’s Room first, the pure cinematics at play in O Sangue will startle one to think it is the work of another director altogether. Hence Pedro Costa’s trajectory, like that of any artist in serious involvement with craft, is made more remarkable by studying the chronologic advancements made from the first film up to his most recent. As the critic Mark Peranson put it, it is unnecessary to watch O Sangue or Casa de Lava in order to appreciate the Fontainhas trilogy, but it is nonetheless highly illuminating and rewarding to witness just how much cinematic geography Costa has traversed in only five feature-length films.

The tectonic shift in Costa’s mentality began with the uncertainty principle at the heart of his second film, Casa de Lava (1994). The genesis of this film is multilayered, but generally speaking, Costa began the project with a dim sense of an adventure film set among exotic volcanic landscapes; more specifically, the project would initially take shape as a kind of remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and, unconsciously, Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), though by later accounts, Costa confesses that Alain Resnais’ Muriel (1963) was also a decisive influence. In short, Costa was still under the spell of the past masters who had informed his tastes. For this reason, Casa de Lava is arguably his most conflicted film because its very origin was unsettled by the displacement of Costa from his own country in a foreign land, literally, in that he took a standard film crew and heavy 35mm camera equipment with him to Cape Verde in search of a “political” adventure film; and figuratively, in that he found himself in a struggle not only to shape a conventional story using unconventional means but also to liberate himself from the tendency, as Costa himself put it, to “shoot volcanic landscapes with Mozart or Bach playing over them.” That is, Costa fought the inclination, which he allowed to rein free in O Sangue, to compose “pretty pictures” and go “the easy way out.” This determination, however (and we must thank him for this), did not deter Costa from opening the film with documentary footage of a volcano eruption sequence or of granting us exquisite views of the Fogo landscape and its people.

Pedro Costa's "Casa de Lava"

In any case, the practice of self-imposed restraint and narrowed focus ultimately saved Costa from the technical and metaphoric struggles he underwent in Cape Verde, in search of a fugitive story about a young Portuguese nurse’s difficulty in assimilating to the rustic life of Cape Verdeans in a small village located at the black foothills of the Fogo volcano; indeed autobiographical in that Costa was himself searching for a ‘home’ in a foreign land, made of its volcanic earth and fused by the lava of an ancient time and a mysterious culture. Leaving behind the education and privilege of his early years in Portugal, in Cape Verde he was able to rely upon his own instinct and observational powers, and on the actuality of an unknown location, to carve a concrete way out of the conventional film artifices he was willing to unlearn.

Scene from "Casa de Lava"

Costa has stated in an interview that each film he finishes remains essentially incomplete, since one film’s project inevitably announces other problems to be investigated and resolved in the next work. One of the gifts that the Casa de Lava production gave to Costa was the privilege of entering the lives of the Cape Verdean villagers who he discovered and eventually made the focus of his film. After production was finished, the villagers asked Costa to deliver letters from them to their family members who had immigrated to Portugal for work. Costa complied with their requests and personally visited the homes of many of their family members, an opportunity that gave him, in his words, “a strange password… a key” into the lives of the Cape Verdeans and Portuguese working and struggling to survive in the slums of Lisbon. Following this intimate route of letter service, Costa came into contact with the residents of the Fontainhas barrio, whose African and sub-proletariat inhabitants, many of them drug-addled and subjected to poor living conditions, mandated Costa with the impetus to undertake studies into the subaltern lives of the dispossessed and the displaced.

Among the letters that the Cape Verdeans gave to Costa for delivery is the one recited in Casa de Lava, which plaintively expresses a distant hope for reunion. This letter (which is read above by the young Creole-speaking girl in the video clip) is actually a synthetic hybrid of fragments taken from the sum of those letters (or more likely of what Costa imagined them to express), combined with the structure taken from a poem by Robert Desnos (incidentally the last poem Desnos wrote while imprisoned at the Terezina Concentration Camp by the Nazis, a tragic residence the poet did not survive). The poem by Desnos achieves a different salience, but no doubt an equal melancholic power, when mixed with the wistful speech of a simple laborer. The letter reappears in Costa’s most famous and significant work, Colossal Youth, by which time it has evolved into a hymn of desolation and haunted desire:

Nha crecheu, my love, / Being together again / Will brighten our lives / For at least 30 years. / I’ll come back to you / Strong and loving. / I wish I could offer you / 100,000 cigarettes, / A dozen fancy dresses, / A car, / That little lava house / You always dreamed of, / A three-penny bouquet. / But most of all, / Drink a bottle of good wine / And think of me. / Here, it’s nothing but work. / There are over a hundred of us now. / Did my letter arrive safely? / Still nothing from you. / Some other time. / Every day, every minute, / I learn beautiful new words / For you and me alone / Made to fit us both, / Like fine silk pajamas. / Wouldn’t you like that? / I can only send you / One letter a month. / Still nothing from you. / Some other time. / I often get scared / building these walls. / Me with a pick and cement, / You with your silence, / A pit so deep, / It swallows you up. / It hurts to see these horrors / That I don’t want to see. / Your lovely hair slips / Through/my fingers like dry grass. / Often, I feel weak and think / I’m going to forget you.

The use of “100,000 cigarettes” is poignant beyond description. It is an idiosyncratic desire (not to smoke them but to give them away) because it constitutes something equally crude and graceful: there’s nothing saccharine or obviously romantic in gifting an endless supply of cigarettes to a beloved who probably will need something far more substantial on a trip across the ocean; yet it is this naivete which perfectly describes a hunger far more precious than it is rational. The hunger for security, which only a cigarette could satisfy or a “bottle of good wine,” even if momentarily, is what definitively matters to the one who is dispossessed. Desire for the temporal, the concrete, in place of the abstract or the immaterial — human touch rather than platonisms. This hunger for security, however slim, which typifies the etiological machinery behind all of Costa’s films, is also a hunger for reality, family, and homeland: for an actual place in the world where one can secure oneself against the tide of indifference and absentia which the meanest and most impoverished slums unleash on denizens already at the brink of disillusionment, of total bereavement.

Read Part Two: Spectres of Cezanne, Traces of Bresson

Read Part Three: Straub-Huillet and the Mythic Voice

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