Shot over the course of roughly a decade, starting in the mid-‘90s, the three films in Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s “Fontainhas trilogy”—1997’s Ossos, 2000’s In Vanda’s Room, and 2006’s Colossal Youth—chronicle the decay and death (and purgatory-like afterlife) of a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon. The first two entries, in particular, are a pictorially striking wallow in the day-to-day malaise of its desperately poor inhabits, as they smoke cigarettes, shoot heroin, and stand by as their world literally crumbles around them. Costa seeks not just to evoke life in Fontainhas, but to embed himself in it completely, and the trilogy, brick by brick, lays the foundation for a new kind of realism, one that eschews conventional storytelling and the ungainliness of the filmmaking process itself. But in so doing, Costa trades one kind of artifice for another, replacing the contrived narratives of the past with a vision of poverty so archly aestheticized that it crosses into the exotic.
The essayists who laud Costa’s work in the substantial new Criterion set, “Letters From Fontainhas,” are careful to label Ossos a “transitional” work, as if the innovations of 20th century cinema had curdled like a carton of milk left on the radiator. At the time, Costa was still shooting in 35mm, with a professional crew and their equipment trucks, which are made to sound like tanks in an occupation. (Costa: “The neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.”) And though the longueurs and ellipses that would define his later works are very much in place, Ossos does tell a story—and an affecting one, too—about young people ill-equipped to handle a profound responsibility.
From the start, Costa makes Fontainhas a more vibrant, tactile presence than his human characters, who are largely (and deliberately) stripped of psychology. Ossos opens with a suicidal teenager (Mariya Lipkina) giving birth and shortly thereafter trying to gas herself and the baby. Care for the child is given over to its troubled father (Nuno Vaz), who in turn relies on a nurse to intervene after his negligence lands in the baby in the hospital. But Costa’s distaste for even the thinnest of narratives is already clear in Ossos, which uses the story as way through its tour of the neighborhood and the striking faces of its inhabitants. Its signature sequence—a long tracking shot down the street, as the father nestles his newborn in a black plastic bag—is both the most powerful one in the trilogy and precisely the sort of “cinematic” flourish that Costa was eager to shed later on.
For 2000’s In Vanda’s Room, Costa exchanged the 35mm camera and large crews for a digital camera and no crew, and stripped away the contrivances that gave Ossos (and most other films) shape and forward momentum. Inspired by Vanda Duarte, who played a supporting role in Ossos and goes under her own name here, Costa seeks strictly to evoke the heroin-fueled miseries of her life and take the pulse of her marginalized neighbors. Though Costa isn’t given to social commentary, In Vanda’s Room suggests the poor as an invisible species, forced to share space with the squealing rats as demolition crews chip away at the buildings around them. Costa caresses every frame with artful swathes natural light, but any sense of tranquility is undercut by the invasive sounds of an entire neighborhood in violent collapse.
The trouble with In Vanda’s Room, aggravated tenfold by Costa’s follow-up, Colossal Youth, is the unrelieved tediousness that comes as a consequence to his rejection of any and all narrative architecture. Fontainhas as we knew it from the first two films has been leveled, replaced in Colossal Youth by the quiet, uniform spaces of a low-cost housing complex. It follows, loosely, the almost spectral existence of Ventura (again, using his own name), a widower from Cape Verde who wanders in and out of his neighbors’ apartments, regarding them as his “children.” Without the tension of outside forces impeding on their lives, Costa allows their listlessness to become the film’s defining characteristic, yielding the floor to brutal fixed-camera monologues that are only occasionally relieved by his painterly eye. There are many who consider Colossal Youth to be the peak of his refined minimalism, but at worst it seems less a movie than an installation—an airless objet d’art that’s no less artificial than the traditions its rejecting.
Key features: The lovingly assembled extras include interviews, commentaries, and/or trailers for every film, plus a 199-minute supplement disc that expands on Costa’s vision and offers a glimpse into his process. A feature-length documentary on the making of Colossal Youth reveals the intimacy of Costa’s collaboration with his non-professional actors, and two of the three short films included (“Tarrafal” and “The Rabbit Hunters,” both from 2007; the third is a 2005 installation piece called “Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female”) also focus on Ventura.
Grades: Ossos: B+; In Vanda’s Room: B; Colossal Youth: C