Judge Daryl Loomis knows that one day, if he keeps trying hard enough, he'll finally catch that dragon.
I wish I could give you 100,000 cigarettes.
For his second film, director Pedro Costa (Casa de lava) went to the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde for shooting. The film was completed there, but his time on the island opened a door he did not expect. As he was leaving the country, bound home to Portugal, many locals approached him to deliver letters and greetings to friends and relatives who had immigrated to Lisbon, in an African slum called Fontainhas. He made good on his word, but upon delivering the letters, he began to get to know the residents of the neighborhood and thus birthed the three films we have here; a loose trilogy Criterion Collection calls Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa.
Facts of the Case
In Vanda's Room
At first glance, the three films that loosely make up the trilogy called Letters from Fontainhas are pretty dour material. This, on top of the near eight-hour running time of the set, seems like a daunting proposition. But Pedro Costa's ability to build a connection between his characters and his audience makes for an utterly compelling cinematic marathon. His characters and the actors behind them are often one in the same. They are a marginalized, poverty-stricken group, but Costa doesn't take make easy judgments or condescend to his subjects. Instead, he director spends the time to get to know these people, to help the audience understand who they are and the considerable meaning that exists in their lives.
These films show humanity at its most raw; Costa doesn't romanticize their poverty, but their struggles take on a poetic beauty that is impossible to turn away from. In spite of some extremely harsh living conditions, the residents of Fontainhas, displaced from their families in Cape Verde, have built a new one in the neighborhood. Costa captures their relationships with loving sensitivity and an unflinching eye; though he leads us into some rough subject matter, there is always a spark of hope. They may be drug addicts who barely make it through the day, but they retain a certain amount of optimism about their lives. The films have such intimacy that they almost seem like documentaries, and the line between fact and fiction is rarely more blurry.
Ossos is the shortest and most plot-driven film, though even that's pretty thin. The characters have names different from the actors and the film generally feels more staged than the other two. Its connection to the others is mainly in the setting and the presence of Vanda Duarte in the role of Clotilde, Tina's friend and the only person who keeps Tina from suicide. As the nameless father takes the child and tries to beg with it, he takes us on a tour of the neighborhood, building it as a character as much as any of the people. The story sheds most action and instead reveals the moments that are generally omitted in other films, such as extended scenes of walking. The beauty in the film sneaks up on you, but is undeniable by the end.
Costa shows considerably more confidence from the opening moments of In Vanda's Room. Eschewing story altogether, the director gives us the raw detail of life in Fontainhas. Vanda sits in the near dark with her sister and other friends, smoking cigarettes and heroin, and discussing the day-to-day aspects of their lives with the same candor that they discuss their sordid and often sad pasts. While the women chase the dragon, the men shoot it into their veins, which is even more harrowing to watch. It's not done as exploitation, because if the point is to show the essential reality of their lives, then Costa must show everything. Vanda talks occasionally about the inertia that moves them in their lives; she'd probably rather be off drugs, but when she looks at her life, she really doesn't see it as all that bad. In the three hours of In Vanda's Room, we start to feel that same inertia. For the little that actually happens in the film and for as long as it is, it moves at a steady, almost hypnotic pace. My favorite of the three, each of these scenes is a work of art in itself.
That inertial feeling continues in Colossal Youth, where we see how much has changed for these people. Fontainhas has been torn down and their de facto family has been cast across Lisbon. There is a stronger sense of nostalgia and sadness here than in either of the previous two films. While Ventura's new life is more secure, it is also empty. Everything he knows was destroyed when the walls of his old neighborhood came down. His wife and family are gone and, though he has been able to make some connections, it is as though he is in the past and the present at the same time. Vanda is in the picture, but in a much more ancillary fashion. She is off heroin and has had a daughter, but she seems much worse. She talks often about wanting the suffering to end and Ventura agrees. Things are going badly; their spirit is diminished in this new place, but just like they had no capacity to change their drug abuse before, they have no way to alter their circumstances six years later.
Criterion's usual care and attention to detail are in full effect with this Letters from Fontainhas boxed set. The first three discs contain the films, each with its own slate of extras; followed by a fourth that contains a number of other supplements. Technically, the presentation is virtually perfect. These are small, extremely low budget films, so there are limitations, but this is as good as it gets. Ossos is the only of the three shot on film, so there is a fair amount of grain. In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth were shot on low-end video, and there is some flatness of the image in both films. That aside, all three entries in the trilogy have perfect color balance and brilliant shadow depth. The images are extremely dark and shadowy, but the detail is exceptionally strong. The length of the shots in these films gives us the opportunity to really appreciate the images, and the level of quality stands up to close examination. The sound mix, stereo on all three, is equally low-end (the two later films' sound was recorded with his camera microphone), but there is a shocking lack of the hiss associated with such production. Ossos, in particular, is a noisy film, full of ambient sound, and is sharp and clear at all times. The dialog is nicely balanced with the ambient noise; the simplicity and effectiveness of the sound design is fantastic across the board.
It's not surprising to find that Criterion's supplemental material for the trilogy is second to none. On the Ossos disc, we begin with a long conversation between Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin, which serves as a mini-commentary on the film. They discuss the process of making the film but, more importantly, the process of building the trust of his actors, marginalized people in real life, with a director coming in looking to document the struggles they face was a contentious situation. Interviews with critics and members of the crew reveal the deep connection Costa built with the people in the film, and a video essay by artist Jeff Wall accentuates the painterly quality of the images. For In Vanda's Room, we have a full-length commentary with Costa and Gorin, as they continue their conversation from the first disc. It lends a nice consistency to the discussion and allows them to comment directly on the changes that happened in the three years between the first and second films. A gallery of photographs by Richard Dumas shows some of the characters and places in the film independent of Costa to round out this disc. Colossal Youth is left a little bare, but we do have a further continuation of Costa and Gorin's conversation. The final disc contains the bulk of the supplements. In addition to the 45 (valuable) pages of essays in the booklet, we start with a selected-scene audio commentary on Colossal Youth with critic Cyril Neyrat and author Jacques Ranciére, in which they pull the parts of the film that they find particularly important. A full-length documentary from 2006 called All Blossoms Again shows us Costa on the set of Colossal Youth and his relationship to the people of Fontainhas; this is an excellent production. Two short films from 2007 directed by Costa and featuring Ventura and a video installation piece featuring outtakes from In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth round out this phenomenal four-disc set.
At the end, we have spent nearly ten years with Vanda and the others from Fontainhas, and getting to know them has been an extremely rewarding experience. I was entirely unfamiliar with Pedro Costa, but through Letters from Fontainhas, I can easily see how impressive he is as an artist. The films are slow and patience is required, but you get from these films what you put into them, and it's more than worth the investment.
Pedro Costa has committed poetry to film in Letters from Fontainhas. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice, Ossos
Perp Profile, Ossos
Distinguishing Marks, Ossos
Scales of Justice, In Vanda's Room
Perp Profile, In Vanda's Room
Distinguishing Marks, In Vanda's Room
Scales of Justice, Colossal Youth
Perp Profile, Colossal Youth
Distinguishing Marks, Colossal Youth
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