(Ventura in Pedro Costa's haunting, poetic Colossal Youth. All images courtesy of Criterion.)
I came late to the movies of Pedro Costa. I discovered my considerable loss very quickly.
The first Costa film I ever saw was Colossal Youth at the official screening at Cannes in 2006. It took a little bit of time to understand or differentiate the characters. At some point I responded the same way I did the first time I read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.
That is, I simply stopped trying to understand it but simply surrendered to the hypnotic rhythms and absolutely astounding imagery.
That liberation made it all the more terrifying, demanding and exhilarating a viewing experience. Of all the films I saw at Cannes that year, it stayed with me in a way few films have. It was, predictably, a very hostile screening marked by multiple walk outs. In the interim a traveling American retrospective has made it possible to see every Costa film. I saw the other works in different order, and each had a powerful, primal impact. I had no idea, for instance, in watching Colossal Youth it marked the final piece of a trilogy and the character of Vanda (played, or incarnated, by Vanda Duarte) was a connecting bridge to the three works.
Costa resists almost any form of classification. The particular tension comes out of the dialectical rupture of the forms, the brilliant intertwining of documentary, fiction and some glorious combination that eludes easy capture.
He is an ethnographer with a brilliant feel for visual texture, composition and editing. His stories move to the halting, languorous internal rhythms and hesitant glances and static passivity of the poor and dispossessed, mostly émigrés from the former Portuguese colony Cape Verde, that comprise the bulk of the inhabitants of Fontainhas section of Lisbon.
This week, the essential New York DVD label Criterion has published in a beautifully appointed box set, Letters from Fontainhas, that collects the three films: Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, with a group of shorts by the director and a strong range of critical pieces, video essays and scholarly analysis of the work (and a string of excellent interviews between Costa and director Jean-Pierre Gorin).
Pedro Costa made himself available for a long phone interview from his office in Lisbon. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
(Mariya Lipkina, left, as troubled young mother Tina, with Vanda Duarte, in Pedro Costa's 1997 Ossos.)
Patrick Z. McGavin: Is it fair to suggest, particularly with In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, your way of working is closer to that of a sculptor, painter or novelist.
Pedro Costa: Sometimes when I see some colleagues, people shooting in the streets, it seems a bit different, almost two different worlds. A friend said to me once: “I have six more assistants than what I need.” I don’t know if it’s closer to a painter or sculptor. My way of working, more recently, has been the kind of ideal research, something closer to anthropology or social work.
The idea is to go a little bit beyond other parallel sources of interest because more and more I feel very limited or unhappy when I’m just thinking about the shot, or art. All of this new wave [of directors he is associated with, like Jia Zhang-ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul], this thing that I found was very precious was the feeling of being a bit more connected to reality. When I thought something didn’t work for me, I thought we’ve lost this sort of small confrontation with reality.
Film is a realistic art, when you go beyond this realistic, it’s not quite fake or unrealistic, but cinema becomes a bit lost. Every shot, every edit, becomes a bit too vague. If you work closely to some sort of tangible reality, it becomes a bit stronger.
McGavin: The soundtrack of all three films is quite stunning.
Costa: I was used to a much more constrained image and sound, especially the sound. [In the earlier films] everything was done a little bit after [shooting] by the sound director; sometimes by somebody was already doing another film. The neighborhood and the community are so rich. I have the impression that [the sound director] is doing a film because of the freedom of the shooting. The sound director can go out on his own and stop by and give you an idea for a shot.
People see the shots and image and the light, you can see the way I [used] less and less artificial light and got closer and closer to reality, or my impression of that place. We try to get closer and closer to that sound. It’s this very strange mix of the private and public. Sometimes a room is more public or louder than a place where people talk, dance and sing; sometimes the streets are the opposite. You never know when it’s secret. It’s an interesting problem for film. For cinema, it’s always been like that. You have life.