A Cinema of Refusal: On Pedro Costa
Art transcends, but packaging is important. It speaks to the power of Pedro Costa's cinema that I'm willing to admit my mixed feelings about the Criterion Collection's release of the four-disc Letters From Fontainhas box set. This smacks of ingratitude, I know. I have no qualms about the 51-year-old Portuguese auteur being elevated to the top shelf with Ozu, Bresson and Tarkovsky, and I can set aside, for a moment, the fact that Letters From Fontainhas marks the first DVD release of Costa's work, which has never been screened in the United States outside the festival and retrospective circuit. But for an artist who treats the balance of form and content as a moral imperative, the gorgeous, fully loaded Criterion treatment seems discordant. Walter Benjamin feared that someday the rich would hang bankable portraits of starving children on their walls. Are Costa's stark, rigorous films about the impoverished denizens of Lisbon's Fontainhas district at risk of becoming collector's items?
The box set contains the trilogy Ossos (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006), a series of works inordinately concerned with the conditions of their creation. In the key sequence of Colossal Youth, Costa's metaphysical epic, a meticulously composed still-life shot of a table in a tumbledown shack cuts to an extravagantly colorful Rubens painting, seemingly lighted from within, hanging inside Lisbon's Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Costa is not making a glib distinction between misery and splendor but contrasting two forms of beauty. In the first shot, which takes place about thirty years in the past, the viewer hears the busy soundtrack of the outside world, while the second presents high art (and an image of an even more distant past) in its silent, hermetically sealed safety zone. In the tableaus that follow, Costa presents two characters framed alongside the paintings and furniture of the museum, and they hardly seem out of place. One of them, Ventura, an older man playing a version of himself, recalls when, as a young Cape Verdean immigrant in Lisbon, he worked to construct the walls of this museum. With pride and defiance, Ventura carries himself like an owner, not an intruder. Nevertheless, he is made to exit through the back door.
Doors and walls are the central motif in Costa's work, and the barriers to entry are manifold and varied. I consider myself a hardened viewer of European art cinema, but the first time I tried to watch Colossal Youth, I fled the screening after an hour, unable to negotiate the narrative lapses or withstand the film's stasis. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called Costa "the Samuel Beckett of world cinema," which seems like a contradiction in terms; but Costa's films plainly do resist the easy grasp, refusing to distinguish between fiction and documentary, artifice and naturalism, splendor and ugliness. (Blessedly, the box set of these films demonstrates Criterion's commitment to his aesthetic by leaving untouched the image pixelation in scenes of extreme darkness.) And yet, rather than Beckett or Warhol, Costa sees himself working in the tradition of the most classical studio auteurs. At the Tokyo Film School in March 2004, he described Chaplin, Griffith, Mizoguchi and Ozu as "the greatest documentary directors, and thus the greatest directors of life, of reality":
They are the directors who hide things, who close the doors, and you can open them, sometimes. Yet, to open the doors of such films is difficult, dangerous—it's work. Sometimes when we think that we're going to show everything, that we make a documentary to show everything, in fact we don't show anything, we don't see anything; we're just scattered. It's absolutely necessary that you must be outside, not on the screen. Never cry or suffer with the character who suffers on the screen, never.
This strict ethical standard forms the blueprint for a cinema of refusal. Costa shows us the Lisbon museum as well as the hands that built it, but not as a way of explaining that art is built on tragedy; instead, he is asking us to incorporate the art outside the frame of the picture. When Costa first took Ventura to the museum, the older man was as impressed with the walls as with the valuable canvases. "He's moved that his walls have Rubens and Rembrandts," Costa said. "But he kept looking behind the paintings." With the release of the Criterion box set, Costa's work has been officially absorbed into the High Art frame, though I trust the precision of its rhetoric will force viewers to reconsider the doors and walls that contextualize its every significant image.
Costa is not exactly in need of a champion. Recently honored with complete retrospectives at London's Tate Modern and Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, he is, at least among the writers and readers of Cinema Scope, Cahiers du Cinéma and Film Comment, the most widely heralded new filmmaker of the past decade, and the one making the most humanistic and unyielding use of digital gadgetry. But the Criterion release, which enshrines the Fontainhas project while also bringing it to a wider audience, is a true test of the paradox that anchors these films: the idea that a cinema of closed doors is the most democratic use of the form imaginable.
In his early years, Costa was on track to become a more conventional kind of great filmmaker. His 1989 debut, O Sangue (The Blood), is a swooning black-and-white facsimile of, at various moments, a Nicholas Ray teen romance and a Jacques Tourneur thriller. A simple story of two young brothers reckoning with their absent father's debts, O Sangue is a chiaroscuro fever dream; one sequence of young love in bloom, scored to The The's New Wave anthem "This Is the Day," is easily the most romantic in Costa's oeuvre. But as Artforum's James Quandt notes, the film "was also something of a false start, in the sense that its dreamy, nocturnal tone, conspicuous cinephilia, and showboating camera work did not establish Costa's true path." This false start would have represented a career achievement for almost anybody else.
Costa's next film, Casa de Lava (Down to Earth), from 1994, pays a narrative debt to Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie while establishing its own strange postcolonial cinematic language. Costa claims that the project stemmed from Portugal's absorption into the European Union and subsequent reactionary turn, an ideological shift that led to the privatization of national television and the evaporation of national film funding. Costa collected a small amount of private capital and decamped to a volcanic island in Cape Verde, the archipelago and former Portuguese colony off the coast of Senegal. With a cast of professional actors and island natives, he made an elliptical, deeply mysterious ghost story about a Lisbon nurse who accompanies a comatose, perhaps zombified immigrant laborer on his return home. The nurse, seeking an escape from an oppressive urban environment, finds the island and its inhabitants in a state of purgatory, neither emotionally bound to Portugal nor fiercely independent. "Everyone wants to leave," we are repeatedly told, but the women who anchor the island community seem unmovable. There is enchantment but also confusion, and Costa's technique mirrors the protagonist's dysphoria: his camera takes unambiguous pleasure in the landscape while maintaining emotional distance from the characters.
Arguably, the key drama of Casa de Lava occurred off camera. Knowing that the filmmaker was headed back to Europe, Cape Verde residents asked Costa to deliver letters and gifts to friends and relatives living on the outskirts of Lisbon. It was while making these deliveries that Costa discovered Fontainhas, a slum of dark alleys and crowded homes that appealed to him aesthetically, and whose people—most of them Cape Verdean immigrants—disarmed him with their directness and fortitude. His exposure to this dilapidated sector of Lisbon also prompted him to once again re-examine his approach. The philosophically ambitious films of the 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, an influential formalist and Portugal's best-known cinematic export, render Lisbon as a cradle of high culture populated by the idle rich. Costa—who, it should be said, looks every bit the highbrow aesthete—wanted to affirm the existence of the dispossessed, and began refining his form to match the starkness of a human struggle seemingly hidden from view.