The young untold

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To say that Pedro Costa is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers might sound like a provocation. But I have said it and will repeat it: Pedro Costa is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and there’s nothing willfully perverse in my statement. What follows are initial notes toward understanding why Costa matters. Final judgment is left up to the audience — to whom this director yields so much — and should only follow from seeing his films. Watching Costa’s work gives me the chills; it’s a most mysterious, unusual, and unclassifiable oeuvre, one littered with ghosts of the past and the present.

From the first frame of each Costa film, it’s apparent we’re in the company of that rare filmmaker who simply cares about people: about who his subjects are, about what they’re feeling and thinking, and just as crucially, what his viewers are thinking about them. Each work is riddled with enticing close-ups, and Costa’s pictorial attention (coming out of a sensibility equally at home with European fine art as, say, the dust bowl photography of Walker Evans) is a constant wonder. The subjects are for the most part the downtrodden inhabitants of a Lisbon, Portugal, slum called Fontaínhas, people literally overlooked by dominant cultures. He’s not trying to rub their misery in his viewers’ faces — calling him a "Straubian neorealist," to quote J. Hoberman, is misleading; if anything, his films, with their rejection of rational structures, are more neosurrealist. Rather, the progression in Costa’s cinema has been to give voice to his subjects and to treat them as worthy of existing as fictional characters (Bones, 1997); then, to delve further into their world, their personalities, and their ways of living (In Vanda’s Room, 2000); and most recently, with great success, to combine the two approaches (Colossal Youth, 2006).

Costa finds richness in small variations, and his evolution has led to a narrowing of both subject matter and spatial exploration. Costa has retreated from the wide-open, Monument Valley–esque volcanic surface of Cape Verde to interiors; the benefit of seeing 1994’s Down to Earth is in realizing how Costa’s characters must now feel, cramped in their disheveled surroundings. Combined with his movement toward a long-take style, this signals a shift from a cinema of space to a cinema of time. A parallel trend is an attempt to redefine beauty in cinematic terms — from the exquisite monochrome 35mm of The Blood (1989) to the grubby, purposeful digital video of In Vanda’s Room — and its staggeringly unique use (aided by Costa’s remarkable compositional eye) in Colossal Youth. Likewise, few contemporary filmmakers are as concerned with the juxtaposition of image and soundtrack, and each of Costa’s films reveals new ways of seeing and hearing: in Colossal Youth, the sound is a better narrative guide than the visuals — making long takes a necessity.

Yet the more these movies seem to be within one’s grasp, the more they slip away from comprehension. Costa seems to be saying the same thing about life today: he portrays the outside world as a labyrinth and the domestic arena as a much-needed shelter. He’s surely something of a Brechtian modernist (with Jean-Luc Godard as perhaps an even greater influence than Jean-Marie Straub), yet it’s tempting to assign the modifier post in order to understand Costa’s work. His persistent interrogation of the ways in which people live is certainly post–Yasujiro Ozu. And as Jeff Wall has noted, Costa can also be considered post-Bressonian in that he improves on what some find problematic about the master’s later works — namely, Robert Bresson’s tendency to turn his models into intense abstractions. Costa corrects this by allowing disorder, the uncleanliness of the real world. (Bones is that rare transitional film able to stand on its own as a masterpiece, though at the same time, it doesn’t go far enough — as Vanda and Colossal Youth show). The category that Costa might most willingly fit is that of a postpunk director; that the English moniker Colossal Youth — distinct from the film’s Portuguese title Juventude em marcha, literally "Youth on the March" is also the only album from the stripped-down Welsh band Young Marble Giants (Rough Trade, 1980) is a surrealist coincidence.

Costa’s films are complex objects in which the present and the past intermingle, both literally (in the posthuman Portuguese slums where Costa’s last three features unfold) and within the history of film. The lipstick traces of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, and many other auteurs reappear in Costa’s films. Just as Down to Earth takes off from I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Bones remakes The Searchers (1956). (It might be perverse to say Colossal Youth is Rio Lobo [1970] to Vanda‘s Rio Bravo [1959], but … there, I just said it.) Les inrockuptibles‘s Serge Kaganski has said that Fontaínhas’s poor are like Indians in classical westerns, and that seems about right. In the same way that he recognizes Bresson’s genius, Costa nods to Hollywood even as he tries, in his unorthodox mode of production — he’s created a studio system in which the crew is minimal, and in the case of Colossal Youth, technical support is provided by the actors off camera — to rip it up and start again.

One final, crucial note: As Costa describes, the themes in the films are highly personal. A search for family and for home threads through them, articuutf8g desire for a community that merges the personal and the political (his community is about as far from the European Commission as one can get). And in his subjects, he’s found that missing family, which is but one of many reasons why Colossal Youth is so touching. He’s also developed an alternative, collaborative model of filmmaking that is radical yet replicable, and one that will generate disciples — provided a director is willing to devote the time needed to nurture similar relationships with actors. Even if Costa "only" continues to make films about downtrodden Portuguese — exploring what one festival guide has called a "desperate utopian dream of a human existence" — it’s a new form of cinema that will continue to reverberate, echo, and grow richer with each variation. The avenues of inquiry are innumerable. After all, John Ford only made westerns.

STILL LIVES: THE FILMS OF PEDRO COSTA

Through April 12

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu