Criterion Files #511: ‘Colossal Youth’ Searches the Walls of Lisbon

By  · Published on October 13th, 2011

The emergence of Pedro Costa’s films into American cinematic consciousness remains something of a conundrum that discerning audiences continue to wrestle with. On the one hand, for those who desire for a radically unconventional cinema as far from Hollywood (geographically, aesthetically, ideologically) as one can get, for those who seek respite from the increasingly conventional American “independent” cinema, and for those tired of “global cinema” and its associated mandate of universal accessibility, Costa seems to be the pill to quell cinematic frustration.

But for the American spectator, this comes with a potential price. I know of nobody who would describe Costa’s films as pleasurable, especially since the filmmaker himself seems disgusted by the limitations imposed on cinema as a presumed device for entertainment. Costa’s films are difficult and dense, not only because of his determined and unmistakable approach to minimalism, but because of the localized specificity of this non-global cinema. Simultaneously paragons and pariahs, Costa’s films are a radical awakening and a daunting threat because they resist any categories imposed on them.

Costa’s work certainly resists the notion of global cinema, but it also can’t be comfortably identified as national cinema either. His work is doubtlessly localized, as indicated by the only commercially available set of his films on DVD in the US, Criterion’s Letters from Fountainhas, Costa’s trilogy of films that concern the quiet characters that reside in the eponymous slums of Lisbon. The third and most recent film in that trilogy, the curiously mistranslated Colossal Youth (2006; the Portugese title translates to Youth on the March) is the film that inaugurated domestic critical interest in Costa via a Cannes and an American festival run. It’s a strange circumstance that this is the film that gained Costa international awareness (an awareness that, especially in the US and Japan, far exceeds critical regard of his work in his home country), for in many ways Colossal Youth is the director’s most culturally specific of the Fountainhas trilogy.

The film stars Ventura (the name belongs to both the actor and the character) as the aging paterfamilias of Fountainhas (a title he seems to have given himself rather than been bestowed) who interacts with his various “children” that he, we assume, has developed paternal relationships with during his life in the slums (none of them seem to be his actual biological heirs) while reminiscing on his role in the 1970s Carnation Revolution that brought democracy to Portugal (“Youth on the March” is a reference to that movement). The film’s politics, as indirectly engaged as they may be for the Portugese viewer, are all but shrouded from the American viewer going in blind (and why should it be otherwise?). Aside from slight changes in the clothes of characters and certain visual markers, it’s barely even apparent by any cinematic convention that flashbacks are taking place. Yet Costa’s work is fascinating despite, or perhaps because of, this aesthetic and cultural exclusivity.

The Walls of Fountainhas

Colossal Youth is a fitting end to a trilogy that explores the decrepit walls of Fountainhas, for it takes place (concurrently with its filming) during the demolition of the neighborhood and the slow displacement of its residents into small apartment buildings. Colossal Youth is the beginning of the end of a neighborhood that would no longer be standing in the years following the release of the film. For many American critics who first encountered Costa during the second half of the last decade, in exploring his earlier filmography beginning with the concluding entry of a trilogy, Fountainhas was reconstructed in reverse.

For anybody that has endured the first two entries of FountainhasOssos (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000) – the white walls of these new apartments that Ventura have a stark blankness that, because of the fact that such a profuse white is barely part of the chiaroscuro palette of Costa’s work, is somehow frighteningly full rather than woefully empty. Instead of dark corners within the walls of Fountainhas, these sparse white walls make everything discomfitingly comprehensible through their imposition.

This contrast between the white walls of the (for lack of a more accurate transcultural term) housing projects and the labyrinthine corners of the clay walls of Fountainhas is a perfect analogy for the open and closed layers of the American cinephile’s potential experience of Costa’s cinema: no matter what, there is something alien to us. But therein is one possible reason for his films’ recent appeal: this is a foreign cinema that, for us, is actually foreign in multiple senses of the term. For those of us that choose to delve into Costa’s work, we aren’t greeted with his camera as American tourists who need a careful guide through the landscape. One gets a sense that Costa here is and will always be doing what he’s doing whether we’re there to watch or not.

Beyond Category

Because Costa works in a collective fashion, with nonprofessional actors who actually reside in these poor areas of Lisbon, and because he retains their names in his films that are about the lives of a maligned group rarely represented on screen in Portugal or any country, one could argue that the director is following a tradition of neo-realism or social realism. But Costa’s work never emanates an aura of serving as a social corrective through the politics of mediated representation. For one thing, the director’s fascination with composition within the frame and his reduction of all dialogue to a whisper suggest little concern for realism. While reasons for these characters’ poverty and the consequences of a life without options may be explored or hinted at, Costa’s films aren’t a call to action. Neither a follower of Vittorio De Sica nor The Dziga Vertov Group, there is no certain, much less didactic, political impetus present. Costa’s rejection of cinematic convention hardly even registers as a rejection. His films instead seem to exist in a vacuum where cinema emerged in a wholly separate context, its own unique trajectory in tow.

I do not mean here to exoticize Costa’s films. Quite the opposite. The resistance to categorization in Costa’s work moves beyond a politically active, socially aware, aesthetically corrective cinema and pushes past ideology itself. Costa’s films are anti-ideological. This is reflected in the routine difficulty critics have had in assessing and engaging with Costa’s work in full. Something always feels left out, misunderstood. As Jeanette Samyn and Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon point out, even referring to these films as “Costa’s films” at best gets the story half-right.

Aside from their resistance to historical categories, Costa’s films don’t fit neatly into contemporary categories of arthouse cinema either. Ostensibly, Costa’s work has been included in the Criterion Collection not only because he is a filmmaker of relevant importance but, alongside the company’s work with IFC, this is possibly part of a larger effort by Criterion to further represent important work in contemporary international cinema.

Because Costa’s work is that of deliberately paced minimalism, the director has occasionally been included in the ill-defined and ever-contested “slow cinema” category (let’s just let the term “cultural vegetables” die, mmk?). But unlike the Apichatpong Weerasehakhul’s estoretic and lyrical nature-gazing or Bela Tarr’s tests of endurance (or, for that matter, the films of Tarkovsky), Colossal Youth isn’t interested in shaping cinematic time into its own form, but instead with the adding of the seconds and the minutes and the hours of the day. Rather than transcend time or endure it, Costa’s films capture his characters’ quotidian experience of time. Time isn’t a marvel to be harnessed and morphed, but it’s simply there. To ask anything else of the audience is too presumptive for the anti-ideological filmmaker.

Colossal Youth opens with a fitting and fascinating exercise in composition. Outside the square geometric living spaces of Fountainhas, framed by walls, rooftops, and windows, a box emerges from one of the windows and is slowly pushed out until it falls to the ground. What the box is, or why it is being thrown out, I’m not certain of, nor am I sure that I will ever be. But I’m curious to see more.

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