Like many people, even among those who avidly watch international movies, I had no idea who director Pedro Costa was until a few years ago. Access to the Portuguese filmmaker’s films was difficult to come by, at least where I was located. None of his work was available in the States on region 1 DVD and as far as I can recall none of his films played at the Portland International Film Festival when I was still living there. If you aren’t lucky enough to live in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, or any other major city where access to less commercial cinema is easier to come by… you’re fucked.
So I was anxiously awaiting the release from the Criterion Collection of Costa’s so-called Letters from Fontainhas trilogy on DVD, films consisting of Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), all set in the now razed Lisbon slum of Fontainhas and starring mostly non-actors who lived there. Having watched only Ossos so far (last evening), I’ll reserve saying anything about Costa and his films until I’ve watched at least the rest of the trilogy. But just from viewing Ossos I can say that I was quite surprised by what awaited me. Pleasantly surprised. The film is elliptical, hypnotic, politically aware, evasive in regards to narrative, and oddly formal in its compositions. It’s a strange and entrancing mix of gritty, neorealist “authenticity” and rigorous staging, quietly stunning and profoundly moving despite a melodramatic scenario. It feels lived in… yet Costa is always aware that he is an intruder in the lives of these people, a tourist ultimately unable to embed himself within the reality of Fontainhas until he relinquishes his aesthetic armor.
In an interview with filmmaker/film professor Jean-Pierre Gorin, Costas speaks about Ossos as the first of the trilogy but the end of a more cinematically traditional mode of filmmaking. Ossos, which was shot on 33mm and made with a relatively large professional crew–featuring the cinematography of Emmanuel Machuel (who worked with Bresson on L’argent, 1983)–would eventually give way to a more stripped down approach in the subsequent films. Costa would abandon the intrusiveness of working with the larger crew and opt for digital video instead, keeping things trim, and closer to the ground.
I’m curious to see how I react to the others in the trilogy since it was Costa’s formalism in Ossos that was so satisfying for me. The mix of almost documentary actuality with the more painterly compositions and hollowed-out acting by the cast… unreality within the reality of Fontainhas… seems more honest to me than admitting no intrusion. Maybe I’ll change my mind about that, though, once I’ve seen the other films.
It’s been a long time since a film has seeped into me like this. Watching it late at night, its images trickled into my brain like tendrils of someone else’s dreams… nestling into my own… still resonating with me when I awoke. It’s a strange feeling. Especially when you realize that the experience isn’t reciprocal. You’ll always be a tourist no matter how long you stare back.