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.