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.

Ossos 25.tif

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.


January 5, 2010

It’s time to stagger into the new year with eyes thrust forward. No more list-making and list-arguing and dwelling on the decade that was. Let us break free from our immediate history and nostalgia’s uncomfortably warm grip to embrace the rambunctious year to come. We’re going to squeeze out its tender juices one month at a time, with a touch too much enthusiasm that will emit a pungent, ripe scent of dreams yet to be dashed. Yes, these are the images I will rush to imbibe in the first quarter (and a bit more) of 2010:


A Sixth Part of the World (1926) & The Eleventh Year (1928) (DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

(DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

Available now from the Edition Filmmuseum, this damnably seductive looking package contains the films Dziga Vertov made immediately prior to his epochal Man With a Movie Camera. The Filmmuseum describes the first as a “poetic travelogue”, and the second as a “visual symphony.” Michael Nyman provides the score, and bilingual booklets are included. This is an all-region release, and is 29.95 Euros, which is more USD than I can afford. I take donations.

Sweetgrass(Theatrical, Cinema Guild)

I’ve been aching to see this elegiac nature film ever since it premiered at the New York Film Festival. Opening this week in NYC and then slowly rolling out across the country in limited release, it tracks two modern-day cowboys as they drive a herd of sheep through the Montana mountains. Recently it nabbed the cover of my favorite film magazine, Cinema Scope, which has a fascinating interview with the director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, an assistant professor in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. Cinema Guild is looking like the film distributor of the year. Along with Sweetgrass, they’ve also acquired Jacques Rivette’s superb Around a Small Mountain and critical favorite Everyone Else


January 22

Legion (Theatrical, Screen Gems)

Ever since the ridiculously pulpy trailer hit a few months back, I’ve been intoxicated with its possibilities. Visual effects guru Scott Stewart (Iron Man, Sin City), graduates to the director’s chair and opts for total insanity. God deems the human race a lost cause, and sends his angels to destroy the world. Paul Bettany still has love for the flesh, so he swoops in, tears off his wings, and defends the denizens of a roadside bar (including Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton) from annihilation. Somehow flamethrowers are involved.


January 26

King Lear (DVD, E1)

Orson Welles performs as Lear for this episode of “Omnibus” broadcast live on CBS in 1953.


February 15

British Noir Double Feature: The Slasher & Twilight Women (DVD, VCI)

Ever since Film Forum in NYC held a retrospective of British film noir a few months back, I’ve wanted to dig in further. I know nothing about these two other than this: The Slasher stars Joan Collins and received an IMDB comment of “Risible”. Twilight Women stars Laurence Harvey as a nightclub singer accused of murder. Sounds promising enough for me…

Also on this date:

*Clint Eastwood: 35 Years, 35 Films at Warner Brothers (DVD, Warner Brothers)

*Contempt (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)

*Lola Montes (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Ran (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)


February 19

Shutter Island (Theatrical, Paramount)

Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s insane asylum ghost story was pushed out of Oscar season into the dumping grounds of February. This looks more like horror movie material than award-bait, which leaps this entry up the list. DiCaprio is a Boston cop investigating the disappearance of an asylum inmate. Then he starts to go crazy himself, presumably, with shades of Shock Corridor. From the trailer it looks like Scorsese is having fun – working with waking hallucinations and impish performances from Max Von Sydow and Ben Kingsley.


February 22

A ridiculous booty of home video releases:

*City Girl (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*M (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*Make Way For Tomorrow (DVD, Criterion)

Note: Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the greatest movies ever made, and its image heads this post.

*There’s Always Tomorrow (DVD, Masters of Cinema)


March 12

Greenberg(Theatrical, Focus Features)

Going in blind because of my fondness of Ben Stiller and respect for Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). It reads like a rote mid-life crisis comedy, but I’ll have some faith in the combined talent here.


March 19

Vincere(Theatrical, IFC Films)

My good friend assures me this is a sub par work from Marco Bellocchio, and its melodramatic trappings don’t sound suited to his bitterly sardonic gifts. It’s the story of Ida Dalser, the wife whom Benito Mussolini discarded and ignored. But having thoroughly enjoyed his last three features: The Wedding Director, My Mother’s Smile, and Good Morning, Night, I’m going to have an open mind.


March 22 (the day my wallet begs for mercy)

*Bigger Than Life (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Days of Heaven (Blu-Ray, Criterion)


March 29

*Red Cliff (Blu-Ray [2-Disc International Version], Magnolia)

One of my favorites from last year was released in a truncated version stateside, which cut out over 2 hours of material. Magnolia is releasing the whole behemoth on Blu-Ray, where the scope of Woo’s accomplishment becomes more apparent. Every element is essential to this ancient war epic. You can read my more ponderous thoughts on this film at Moving Image Source.

Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (DVD, Criterion)

One of the most important and divisive filmmakers working in the world finally gets his home video due in the U.S. This includes Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006). A trilogy of films where Costa charts the lives of immigrants living in the slums of Fontainhas, near Lisbon. I’ve only seen Colossal Youth, which is a monumental, demanding work. I only saw it on a muddy screener, so I don’t even feel like I’ve truly experienced its languorous rhythms. Anyway, sure to be one of the most important releases of the year.


April 5

Piranha (DVD, Shout! Factory)

My Joe Dante education proceeds apace. I continue to think Matinee is a masterpiece.


April 16

Piranha 3D (Theatrical, Dimension)

After I receive my Joe Dante education, I can try Alexandre Aja’s (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes (’06)) take on the material. In 3D. With an out-of-retirement Christopher Lloyd and my new favorite character actor, Adam Scott.


April 23

MacGruber (Theatrical, Universal)

In this SNL-derived parody of MacGyver, Val Kilmer plays a villain named Dieter Von Cunth. That’s enough for me. Also, director Jorma Taccone is part of the “Lonely Island” trio that produces all of SNL’s digital shorts, for a long time the only worthwhile part of the show.


May 1

Piranha (Blu-RayShout! Factory)

Oh, Shout! Factory, you’re really playing with my emotions here. Wait until May just to watch the Blu-Ray? OK, fine. But I’m seeing the Aja version first.