There’s no place like home

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In his recent book Poor People, William T. Vollmann writes, "For me, poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable." Despite the enormity of such a disclaimer, Vollmann attempts to calibrate a calculus of misery. Portuguese director Pedro Costa seems motivated by a similarly conflicted impetus. Over the past decade, Costa has made a trilogy of films with the working poor of Fontainhas, a sprawling slum outside Lisbon. Trading Vollmann’s pained self-consciousness for a meticulous formalism that favors rehearsal over reportage, Costa’s remove sets into relief the humanity of his subjects, rather than objectifying or patronizing them.

Many of Fontainhas’s residents are of Cape Verdean descent. That country’s wretched history – as an exploited colony and the center of the Portuguese slave trade – looms large in the collective memory of Fontainhas, as if stained into the walls of its dilapidated tenements and etched across the beaten visages of its inhabitants. It is a legacy of continual disenfranchisement, displacement, and enforced invisibility, which tentatively approaches a terminus with the trilogy’s final installment, Colossal Youth.

Whittled down from roughly 300 hours of footage to just over two, Colossal Youth is a desultory, snail-paced compilation of everyday interactions and fragmentary conversations that skirts the edges of documentary. Costa’s long, static shots mirror the rhythms of the characters’ daily lives – getting high (or taking drugs to get off drugs), scavenging, day laboring, and speaking in perpetuum of possibilities that will forever remain unfulfilled. It is an existence made all the more precarious by the fact that Fontainhas is being razed and its inhabitants relocated to a new, antiseptic public housing complex that’s even farther removed from Lisbon, a process that was happening as Costa filmed.

At the center of this dispossessed community is Ventura, a retired laborer who, like many of Costa’s leads, is presumably playing a variation of himself. Recently abandoned by his wife – an event that forms Colossal Youth‘s haunting, elliptical two-shot prologue – Ventura spends the rest of the film alternately airing his grief and acting as a father figure to a succession of interlopers: old neighborhood friends, former colleagues, acquaintances, and extended family members both biological and adopted.

These include Vanda, a recovering drug addict (the titular character of Costa’s 2000 film, In Vanda’s Room) who ambivalently calls Ventura "Papa" and awkwardly approaches her new role as mother with a fidgety uncertainty; an estranged daughter still living amid the rubble of Fontainhas; a government housing agent equally amused and annoyed by Ventura’s vague requirements for his new home (when asked how many children will be accompanying him, Ventura replies, "I don’t know yet"); and an illiterate migrant worker who enlists Ventura to write a letter to his beloved, which he continually recites as though it were scripture.

With his shock of gray hair, threadbare suit, and stoic gaze that seems perpetually transfixed by something beyond our vantage point, Ventura shuffles between the crepuscular ruins of Fontainhas and the blindingly white interiors of his future residence like an ineffectual ghost, reluctant to admit that he has to some extent become a spectral remainder of the very past that haunts him.

Costa’s architectonic framing of Ventura – which favors low angles and makes startling use of the play of natural light across the film’s many mottled surfaces – no less contributes to this impression. Costa fully exploits digital video’s ability to capture extremes of contrast, flattening exterior landscapes and the people within them into intersecting planes of light and shadow and discovering new inky variegations of black within the darkest of interiors. Some of the film’s most stunning moments come when Costa lets more vivid hues intrude on the mostly washed-out palette of sickly greens and dirtied off-whites, as in a scene in which Ventura seeks a moment of respite amid the cloistered cool of a gallery hung with the paintings of Spanish old master Diego Velazquez.

Colossal Youth is at times as interminable (Vanda’s extensive improvised monologue about giving birth) as it is bleak and oblique. Above all, though, it is brave. Although the word might seem odd, I put it out there not simply because Costa’s film so flagrantly tests the patience of its audience (since its divisive premiere at Cannes last year, walkouts have become a routine part of its screenings) but because it never solicits our pity or invites our disapproval of the people whose lives it so doggedly follows.

For Costa, the aesthetic’s promise of succor – whether found in the rough-hewn lines of a love poem that will never reach its intended addressee, the supposedly democratized space of a museum, or that other dimly lit image reservoir, the movie theater, in which we yearn to be relieved of ourselves – is an illusion, which, however sustaining, can never be made good on.

There is simply no rest for the weary or for the filmmaker who trails alongside them. On the razed grounds of a home that was never really one to begin with, Costa clears a place for the impoverished to testify about their lives. It is a space that, as Vollmann’s problematic volume attests, can perhaps only be realized on film – an expanded freeze-frame on the pause between the two halves of Samuel Beckett’s famous couplet: "I can’t go on, I’ll go on." *

COLOSSAL YOUTH (Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland) Sat/28, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/1, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 8:15 p.m., PFA