As the erroneously-maligned 1980s drew to a close, an unheralded revolution was only just beginning. Deep in the outermost fringes of the arthouse circuit, there emerged O sangue (1989) – a feature which plays like an overeager cinephile’s fever dream. Its director appears to perceive the act of homage as paramount (the spirits of Bresson, Nicholas Ray and The Night of the Hunter are unavoidable), whilst his aesthetic strives to emulate the misanthropic weight of a classic noir; a gloomy, evocative score doing much to complement the attempt. Perhaps the most luxuriously photographed effort of its decade (so breathtaking is its beauty that the work seems almost polychromatic, despite being filmed in black-and-white), this meandering, enigmatic depiction of disenfranchised youth ultimately suffers from the reverence of cinema over subject. Though wondrous to look at, the film remains too consumed by its plethoric romanticism to fulfil its commitments to Lisbon’s forgotten adolescents – O sangue ends up sidelining its characters’ struggles in a manner reminiscent of the wider society that appears oblivious to their existence. At this early stage in his career, its director Pedro Costa can be deemed only a proficient poseur.
Nevertheless, in spite of his debut’s limitations, the seeds for Costa’s future upheavals have already been sown. O sangue may be glaringly anomalous in his oeuvre (its veneration of surface sheen would prove uncharacteristic, whilst the film’s opening, discomfiting slap to our protagonist’s face marks the only act of outright kineticism that the director has indulged in to date), but it initiates a series of concerns and motifs that would be explored more thoroughly in the ensuing years. Definitive themes are already visible: social maladjustment; emotional deracination; traumatising histories, both personal and political. Especially pertinent is his presentation of the makeshift family: a group of impoverished individuals forming bonds of protection, guided by the misleading ideal of “safety in numbers”. Given that O sangue‘s primary achievements are technical however, its ramifications upon the director’s output naturally follow suit. Costa’s jarring pre-eminence of close-ups begins here, with characters that stare directly back into their audience, as if to condemn our own collusion in their invisibility. The sterility of a modern, urban world is exposed and its latent inequalities excoriated as shots of intimidating, high-rise apartment blocks are contrasted against the ramshackle homes of the downtrodden (no filmmaker uses architecture more creatively, with frames often segmented multiple times over to punctuate the concealed incarceration that’s synonymous with these habitats). Above all else, O sangue is crucial for inaugurating its director’s ability to locate grace in the unlikeliest of settings; his unparalleled compositions managing to invest the ugly and/or mundane with an elegance that’s as redemptive as it is remarkable. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa may well be a poseur – but he’s one with vast reserves of potential, just waiting to be fully realised.)
By the time of Casa de lava (1994), Costa has made the first of his quantum leaps forward. Never again would he make the mistake of abandoning his characters in pursuit of pictorial bliss – from here on, the director is on a quest for truth, searching for an aesthetic that would do justice to the marginalised subjects whom only he considers worthy of immortality. Still, the allure of his cinematic heroes is yet to be curbed, but where O sangue struck predominantly derivative notes, Casa de lava seems only inspired in its tributes. Conceiving the film as a loose remake of Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Costa relocates his action to the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, and borrows the basic outline of the earlier story: a Western nurse finds herself transported to a distinctly un-Western society in order to care for an incapacitated (in our case, comatose) patient. This template aside, Casa de lava draws its power entirely from its own director’s stylings. Gone are Tourneur’s chiaroscuro hallucinations, replaced here with spectacular long-shots of Fogo’s volcanic landscapes and intimate snapshots of its inhabitants. Costa nurtures his burgeoning taste for ethnofiction: at times, the film seems to detach itself entirely from the constraints of narrative and uninhibitedly wanders into the surrounding community; a documentarian’s portraiture of a lost civilisation. As insatiable as this impulse for observational research is, the director remains dedicated to his reinterpretation of the classic text. His heroine is thus moulded into an entitled imperialist in a culture that she completely fails to comprehend (“Speak Portuguese!”): her condescension towards the native islanders astounding, her inability to grasp their customs revealing, and her myopic view of her own self-worth sickening. Costa scrutinises the unbalanced relationship between the colonialist and the colonised, sparing ample time for the latter in an attempted redress. Yet the director is astute enough to recognise his own status as an intrusive profiteer in this scenario and, therefore, his own inadequacies in depicting the local mores. His masterstroke is to counteract with a series of tactful elisions that sanctify the manifold mysteries of his environment, whilst simultaneously demythologising its innate exoticism – Casa de lava subsequently becomes a haunted ‘prison film’, with Fogo the jailhouse from which all its residents wish to escape. “Not even the dead rest here.” (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has already established himself as the cinema’s foremost poet of cultural displacement.)
Ossos (1997) offers another seismic shift (ostensibly to the left) as the director returns to Lisbon, and specifically the ghettos of Fontainhas – the destination to which Casa de lava‘s immigrants-in-waiting are invariably headed, and a location from which he himself hasn’t exited since. Fuelled by his experience of deprivation in Cape Verde, Costa decides to raise awareness of the poverty in his own backyard to staggering effect. As always, the director relies upon close-ups and ellipses as means of expression, but his Ossos finds itself more frequently susceptible to elongated takes than its elder siblings and, significantly, it redirects our gaze towards acts of narrative potency that the cogitative filmmaker of yore would have excised. Thus, we now squirm as a young father marches into the city with his newborn child in a bin-bag (the intent: to exploit the baby as a begging tool), and we gasp in horror as his teenage (ex-?)lover attempts to asphyxiate both herself and the very same child by opening the valve of a gas cylinder – the infant’s resultant wheezing frightening in its authenticity. O sangue‘s affectations seem light years away as Costa charts the mental and physical dilapidation inside Fontainhas with unembellished verisimilitude, forcing us to glare at the individuals from whom we’d ordinarily turn away. That’s not to say that Ossos is lacking in either formal ingenuity or positivity in content, however. Indeed, the film introduces one of the key innovations in its director’s move towards a new, slow(er) cinema: the density of soundscapes. Costa’s fertile aural backgrounds contradict the solitude and destitution within his foregrounds: children playing, adults brawling, police sirens blaring – the vibrant rhythms of the outside world are audible and cogent, alerting the viewer to the sheer strength of the neighbourhood’s off-screen’s presence. Accordingly, a sort of diasporic vitality materialises, stabilising the bottomless despair of the film’s characters and neutering any readings that pass judgement upon Fontainhas itself. For all their woes, Costa’s delinquents retain a fierce sense of dignity and pride, which translates into a community whose resilience the director deems worthy of admiration, in spite of its numerous, neverending problems. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has become cinema’s most eloquent champion of the disenfranchised.)
With In Vanda’s Room (2000), Costa takes the realism of Ossos to its logical extreme, and at last fulfils his promise of obliterating the behemoth that is the narrative cinema. This remains the most decisive of the director’s breaks with his past. Although Ossos took strides towards a deeper understanding of its locale and its residents, it exposed a filmmaker who wasn’t entirely at ease in his settings: much like in Casa de lava before it, Costa again uses a nurse from his own social class to function as his vantage point into an alien planet. In Vanda’s Room dispenses with this tactic and discards all traditional cinematic tools alongside it. Filming on digital video, the director uses the freedoms afforded by the new format to completely immerse himself in Fontainhas, now recast as a grimy purgatory in the process of being demolished by an unseen authority. Here is where the fusion of documentary and fiction becomes blurred to the point of appearing seamless, with Costa fixing his gaze upon the locals (many of them seen previously in Ossos, including the titular Vanda) and punctiliously weaving the minutiae of their day-to-day activities into a stream of loose vignettes that refuse exposition. In almost everyone’s case, those activities are bound to a cycle of substance abuse that’s impossible to repel. As the march of oncoming bulldozers amplifies with each passing hour, Fontainhas – or, at least, the director’s conception of it – finds itself overwhelmed by a network of hopeless addicts, and neither Costa nor his ‘characters’ withhold the details of their dependencies: broken needles, mangled veins, crack-induced spluttering – everything is laid bare before our eyes in a hyperreal opiate haze; the most poignant scene in the director’s entire oeuvre featuring Vanda and a possible lover discussing the effects of their addictions upon their respective healths, aware that they’re headed towards self-destruction but incapable of emancipating themselves from their fates. For once, Costa also indulges in the politicisation of his work. Characters express discontent at their marginalisation (“It’s the life we’re forced to live.”) and rant against the state of their nation (“Our country is the poorest, the most pathetic of all.”), but the director’s criticisms aren’t always so vociferous. In one instance, Vanda steals a discarded model boat, declaring the scrap “an antique!” to her ageing mother with childlike enthusiasm, only to then wonder out loud: “Don’t you think I could get at least 5,000 for it?” – Costa recording the fact that it’s here, on the peripheries of capitalism, where commodification is at its most toxic. Surely the most morally potent of all the director’s features (the implications of looking away from the screen aren’t lost on the viewer), In Vanda’s Room is a breathtakingly claustrophobic memoir of social subterraneanism at the dawn of a new millennium; a film that cultivates a shared intimacy between audience and text which ends up redefining the very experience of spectatorship in the cinema. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa is his generation’s most innovative purveyor of filmic realism.)
Finally, we reach Colossal Youth (2006). To this point, the director’s filmography has offered the perfect auteurist case study – each effort building upon the last, developing and refining his cinema with the goal of attaining an honest transparency that will appropriately serve the anguished souls within his frames. Colossal Youth attains that goal. This is the apotheosis of a two-decade journey; the monument that seals its maker’s place in the pantheon. It borrows heavily from his previous offerings: the faces and the sounds, the mysteries and the languor, the distant yet palpable empathy. The delineation between reality and fiction continues to be inscrutable (DV is now established as the format of choice), whilst the political inclinations of In Vanda’s Room are now given centre stage. More than Casa de lava, this is Costa’s “zombie movie”, boasting an utterly passive protagonist (Ventura) who roams the streets of Lisbon in search of blood (his offspring) – shuffling languidly from place to place, arms dangling down the sides of his lanky build; a doomed sleepwalker. To accommodate Ventura’s taste for impermanence, the director’s scope becomes both broader and more complex: drug addiction remains a fact of life, but the local government’s social regeneration policies offer a reprieve from this bleakness – and yet it’s these very same policies that destroy the celebrated unity within Fontainhas, dispersing its former slum-dwellers into a complex of formidable condominiums whose geometric splendour chills with its glacial afterglow. It’s this officially-licensed disintegration of community that provokes Ventura’s amblings; our vagabond/patriarch intruding upon nearly every scene as he searches in vain for the ‘family’ that was so coldly stolen from him. Costa uses this first-generation immigrant’s experiences to deconstruct the understanding of ‘home’ and decompress the concept of ‘time’. Colossal Youth thereby exists in a fluid state of perpetual limbo, vacillating between past and present, Cape Verde and Portugal, squalor and affluence; an anthology of unfulfilled life, complete with digressive memories, immobilised dreams and unreliable oral histories. The director’s humanism is now at its zenith, and as he walks alongside his aimless zombie he consistently transforms the allegedly mundane into high art – daring us to question his motivations as he immortalises his protagonist’s existential crisis with shots of mesmeric grandeur. This, too, becomes the tale of Costa’s ontogeny: his role has progressed from that of mere director to that of an alchemist extraordinaire, capturing unremarkable stories from undesirable individuals and moulding them into dilemmas of monumental gravitas. His is a universe that has come to demand radical modes of perception and reception, but it’s one that offers enormous rewards for such pliancy. Only in Colossal Youth – a virtual fugue state on film – can the act of a (possible) son chopping an apple for his (possible) father seem genuinely revelatory; the greatest gesture of tenderness that mankind is capable of. Now, with the film’s omniscient, epiphanic power in his armoury, the revolution is complete. There can be no more denials: at this stage in his career, Pedro Costa must only be saluted – for it is he, by a considerable distance, who is the most important filmmaker working today.