November 1, 2016
Fontainhas no longer exists, but the three films that Pedro Costa shot there guarantee the torn-down Lisbon slum an afterlife. Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) compile a remarkable history of the everyday – how its residents ate, joked, argued, doped and, eventually, relocated. Fontainhas, a labyrinthine stone warren cut off from Lisbon both economically and architecturally, is witness and repository of the Cape Verdean immigrant community’s shared experiences. The destruction of the blighted neighborhood removes part of their life story along with it. All three films will be available to stream through FilmStruck, the new streaming service curated by Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection, which launches today.
Each film differs in approach. Ossos is the more traditional art-house option, filmed on 35mm (1.66:1) and presenting a relatively straightforward narrative. It concerns an unwanted teenage pregnancy, in which the unnamed father (Nuno Vaz) wanders through Fontainhas and the city at large, looking for someone to foist his baby upon. There is a constant visual contrast between inside and outside the neighborhood, the dark and narrow slum is somehow totally transparent, with pairs of eyes poking through every window and grate. But when all the residents take a bus into the richer city for their maid jobs, the apartments are clean and bright but closed and sectioned off. These are private spaces whereas Fontainhas is all shared and permeable. The non-professional actors, taken from the neighborhood, perform in a non-demonstrative style, never giving away emotion, their characters too tired from hunger, or scrounging to feed that hunger, to really emote. So the film becomes a series of mostly static tableaus lensed by DP Emmanuel Machuel (L’argent, Van Gogh). After Ossos, Costa no longer wanted to make films in the traditional manner, with large crews imposing themselves on Fontainhas, with the director recalling, “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.”
He wanted to his shooting to be less invasive, so for In Vanda’s Room he pared down his crew just to himself, a Panasonic DVX-100 camera, and a sound man, Pedro Melo. Vanda Duarte, who played one of the maids on Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. The choice of camera is another part of Costa’s ascetic project: “We used this camera which is not very sophisticated. It is very poor in certain aspects. But we try to work around that and she (the camera) works with us. She helps with a lot of things. She cannot go that far in terms of resolution compared to other cameras. And we don’t want that, we don’t need that, so we go in a certain other directions. But it is a lot of work.”
Shifting to the square 1.33 aspect ratio, Costa puts Vanda and her friends in boxes, each room a diorama of some newly discovered ritual. Costa’s shift to digital decenters the narrative, allowing Costa to instead focus on the rhythms of the people he is starting to know so well. In between shooting features, he told Art in America, he returns to Fontainhas: “I’m an honorary member of the neighborhood association. My friend who does the sound was appointed a councilor of the new housing block. We have these kind of extravagant tasks that we accept, and we go back—without cameras, without mics. I go to community meetings, discussions every weekend, and I’m only away from there when I’m shooting or promoting something else.”
By the time of Colossal Youth Fontainhas has been almost totally destroyed, looking like a bombed out war zone, it’s residents wanderers and ghosts. The central ghost is Ventura (also the star of the subsequent Horse Money), a Cape Verdean migrant who has been kicked out of his home by his wife, and so he walks to his friends and neighbors, looking for a place to stay. Most of his friends, like Vanda – now a recovering addict on Methadone, and nearly unrecognizable – live in new housing project high rises that are wiped clean of any prior residents. Fontainhas, even in its decrepit state, still displays its layers of history, and the people who have made literal impressions on it.
As Ventura does his wander, he soon realizes he does not belong outside of his beloved Fontainhas. While a real estate agent is showing him another plain white box of an apartment, he leans resignedly against the wall. After Ventura steps away, the agent swiftly takes a handkerchief and wipes the spot on which Ventura was leaning. These new spaces are effacing his presence even before he moves in. Costa will not allow Fontainhas to disappear, and in Ventura’s journey all of the neighborhood’s delirious fantasies and failures are allowed to flower: there is a love letter never sent, a violent dream of shape-shifting, the ravages of drug use, endless card games, factory and museum reveries, and a nature program on television as a child plays. It is a film of unsettled ghosts and banal realities, of decaying history that cannot be written down but exists only in the stain on a wall, an indentation on a countertop. People lived in Fontainhas who the rest of the city would prefer to ignore, the immigrant poor and their families. But they left their mark anyway. Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy attempts to capture these marks, and restore to them the physical history of their community.