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.

In Ossos, the first film in Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy, the camera almost never moves. It feels heavy, weighted down, a mechanical analogue to the seemingly narcotized principal characters—played almost entirely by nonactors—who spend a considerable amount of time staring fixedly into space. It helps that Costa, who has the eye of a silent film director, discovered some of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen on-screen. Vanda Duarte, the film’s lead performer and Costa’s subsequent muse, is marked by a kind of soulful self-possession, no matter how haggard her surroundings. The title, translated as "Bones," refers both to the drastically scaled-down manner of production and the emotional strength of the film’s women, who look thin but seem unbreakable.

The film also demonstrates a remarkable lack of condescension toward the poor. One character, an unemployed teenage father whose partner has recently given birth, is a singularly pathetic figure. He uses his baby to leverage pity; rarely opens his mouth except to blame others; and acts like a dead weight, literally: in two separate scenes he collapses onto a bed like a blunt, inanimate object. When Costa’s camera isn’t quietly observing the women in the dark rooms of Fontainhas, it follows this father through the streets of Lisbon as he tries to exchange the baby for cash. He seems beyond help—he feeds the baby milk received as charity, and a few moments later is seen rushing the child to the hospital—but Costa cannot help but grant him a moment of vulnerability. He leaves the baby on a couch in a brothel, walks away and turns back once, quickly, before breaking into a trot and descending the stairs. That quick backward glance is, in Costa’s minimalist order, weighted with moral significance. For a split second, the father registers as something other than numb dead weight. Then he moves on.

Shot on 35-millimeter film by Emmanuel Machuel, who worked with Robert Bresson and Maurice Pialat, Ossos is a slow, immersive experience. Some of the film’s Bressonian flourishes—its focus on fragmented objects, doors, locks and keys—seem predetermined, unafraid to stand nakedly as metaphors. Costa also loads the film with peculiar alienation effects. The two female protagonists are each provided a doppelgänger who hovers on the margins of the story, sometimes offering a comment but mostly watching silently. If we attempt to identify with the central figures, we also have to consider those who, like the audience, are only here to watch. Even so, the vividness of the film’s portraits points toward a further refinement of craft. The film ends with a young woman closing a window, as if to say, That’s enough; I permit you to come no farther. Pointedly, the clamorous noises of the neighborhood continue playing on the soundtrack as the credits roll. This story isn’t over.

Costa considered Ossos a dead end. He saw himself and his crew as intruders in a residential community—shining bright lights after dark, exercising power over the powerless. He became fully attentive to the moral considerations of what it means to bring a camera into another person’s private sphere. He decided he wasn’t done with Fontainhas, even if Lisbon had consigned it to the dust heap, having opted to begin destroying the neighborhood as part of a slum clearance initiative. At the invitation of Vanda Duarte—who asked him, cryptically, to "stop the faking"—Costa took a Panasonic DV camera to Fontainhas; for more than six months, every day and on his own, he collected 180 hours of footage for a kind of performative documentary about the women and men living outside the margins of Portugal’s official history. The monastic In Vanda’s Room—the title is a rebuke to Ossos‘s closed window—represents Costa’s orthodox attempt at what Wallace Stevens called "the poem of pure reality."

Digital video has enabled Michael Mann to become more fleet-footed, David Lynch more esoteric and Aleksandr Sokurov able to pull off at least one monumental stunt. Costa uses it to reduce his footprint to the point where it becomes a constant, invisible presence. Though In Vanda’s Room is shot with the lightest possible equipment, the camera still does not move. Here Costa operates in a kind of primitive mode where the simplicity of means—one camera, a few mirrors, natural light—facilitates a series of stark visual epiphanies. Costa has called this tendency "reactionary," but the results couldn’t feel more radical. American minimalist James Benning has adopted digital technology to stretch his fixed camera shots to an almost interminable length; his recent Ruhr features an unbroken sixty-minute take of an industrial coke plant. Costa also tests the power of the extreme long take, but whereas Benning forces the viewer’s gaze onto landscapes and industry, in order to invite all manner of theoretical and political questions about the nature of image, Costa challenges the spectator to engage with human beings in claustrophobic settings for uncomfortably long stretches, and they’re exactly the types of people we’d cross the street to avoid. In doing so, he has become digital cinema’s first material humanist.

With the thuds and groans of wrecking balls and bulldozers dominating the soundtrack, the nearly three hours of In Vanda’s Room depict the last gasps of a Fontainhas district preparing for dispossession. Opening with a shot of its protagonist inhaling heroin, passing it to her sister, then letting loose her trademark hacking cough, In Vanda’s Room is the loud and unrelenting cousin to the mannered quiet of Ossos. In the earlier film, drug use is carefully elided; in Vanda the paraphernalia of self-destruction is omnipresent. Digital video mostly sharpens the oppressiveness of the atmosphere, isolating the flies and insects, and the flatness of the imagery echoes the flatness of the dialogue. Crucially, digital video also allows Costa to shoot in extreme darkness: some scenes are so inadequately lighted that the bright white subtitles seem jarring. (In Costa’s films, materiality is always in the way.) It seems strange to designate as beautiful an experience this forbidding; but as Cyril Neyrat notes, this is "not a cosmetic beauty but one that is caustic and critical—a beauty that allows us to see, hear, and feel the strengths and weaknesses, the pride and shame, the despair and the life that resists and rises up against destruction and annihilation."

Lacking establishing shots or a bird’s-eye view, this remarkable work is very much a representation from within; and the story, such as it is, depends on the whims of Lisbon’s municipal wrecking crew. There are robberies, arrests and deaths, but they all happen off-screen. Not entirely unlike the principal characters, we are simply stuck where we are (until where we are ceases to exist). Vanda’s room is a kind of public forum where addicts gather to air grievances and boast about their hematomas, but their quotidian banter always pivots on one basic question: do we have agency or not? "This is the life we want, doing drugs," Vanda asserts, with a characteristic lack of self-pity that leads filmmaker Thom Andersen to view the film as Costa’s remake of Rio Bravo, the classic Howard Hawks western about a ragtag band of misfits standing their ground in a single room to fight off the encroachment of the outside world. (In this comparison, Vanda presumably embodies both John Wayne’s gunslinger and Dean Martin’s drunkard.) But the paradox of In Vanda’s Room is that the bulldozers, those machines of destruction, will be a merciful deus ex machina. Until their walls are knocked down, Vanda and her peers remain trapped in their own decay. The circular logic of these addicts offers no room for exit; using is unsustainable, but withdrawal sounds even more frightening. Prison is supposed to be rock bottom, but how would it look any different from Fontainhas?

Colossal Youth is similarly designed to frustrate easy assumptions about the relationship between the destitute and free will. Also shot on digital video in static long takes, the film follows the relocation of members of Costa’s Fontainhas stock company from their ghost town to a comparably pristine public housing complex. Vanda now looks weathered almost to the point of unrecognizability, but she’s ditched heroin to take on motherhood and now subsists on a healthier diet of methadone and trash television. When Ventura is taken to his new apartment by a civil servant, we expect him to graciously accept what looks like a rare gift. Instead, he complains about its size and points to a couple of spiders on the bright, sterile white walls. This is the same Ventura, remember, who drapes himself across the Gulbenkian Museum’s furniture like a king accustomed to luxury. When confronted with a door that opens and closes without a sound, he looks puzzled; for someone accustomed to the clamor of Fontainhas, silence is immediate cause for suspicion.

In this heavily stylized production, the dazed, unreliable and somehow majestic Ventura has set about finding and gathering his "children"—a collection of grown-up townspeople, Vanda included, who depend in some way on the older man’s wisdom. The film’s centerpiece is a love letter dictated by Ventura to an illiterate, heartbroken young friend; the letter gets repeated around ten times, gaining, losing, then earning back its totemic significance. If the letter can never be written down, then the recitation must keep the sentiment alive. Part Odyssey, part John Ford western, Colossal Youth contends that the men and women of Fontainhas are not only worthy of narrative representation but also heroes of a complicated epic history. (The film’s Portuguese title translates as "Youth on the March," echoing an old revolutionary slogan, and the plot refers obliquely to Portugal’s leftist military coup of April 1974.) Was not Odysseus’ saga also one of migration and displacement, passed down as a remembered poem from generation to generation? Ventura, who at the beginning of the film is exiled from his home at knifepoint by his wife, Clotilde, "or a woman who looked just like her," is constantly confusing names and identities, as the albatross of historical memory threatens to slip from around his neck.

Colossal Youth is a near-perfect synthesis of Costa’s romantic and realist modes. With added confidence in the capabilities of digital video, he manipulates his sources of light so that objects and faces radiate an energy otherwise missing from the landscape. Costa seeks to humanize, to find the monumental in the quotidian, but the more radical gesture is his consciousness of the collateral damage the artist leaves in his wake. Can his answer to irreparable urban decay, to the hardship of women and men who are likely still alive and struggling, really be to ask us to pay $79.95 for a DVD box set? If Beckett spoke to a universal malaise, Costa skirts the boundaries of social anthropology. This particularity is part of the problem. If we thought we could help, we know exactly where these people are. We even know their names. As technology offers novel ways to bring otherwise segregated populations into the same headspace, one wonders just how close you can get and still remain an outsider. Costa has handed the world a slum in a box. He also gives us its beating heart. Which is the heavier burden?