Costa’s Letters

In Vanda's Room (d. Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2001)

Pedro Costa’s films are meant to be letters. For Costa, letters act as metaphors, ways of addressing the possibilities of cinema. In a speech at the Tokyo Film School in 2004, he told his audience that making a good film is like writing a love letter in a bank: “Few people are going to see this love letter in a bank, and still fewer are going to write a love letter in a bank. . . . Your work is to continue trying to write love letters, and not checks. Sometimes people don’t notice your work, of course. Well, we resist and we keep going to the bank to write love letters.” Costa invites an understanding of his films in epistolary terms. The form of a basic letter, requiring just a pen and a piece of paper to compose, is a useful analogy for Costa’s minimalist approach to filmmaking. And the time-consuming revision of letters parallels Costa’s method of paring his films from countless hours of footage. The problem of letters being ignored, misread, or forgotten—their potential for failed exchange—recurs in three of his films: O sangue (1989), Casa de lava (1994), and Colossal Youth (2005). The opposite problem, that unwanted letters might arrive, propels the plots of Tarrafal (2007) and The Rabbit Hunters (2007).

It’s fitting, then, that the Criterion Collection recently packaged Costa’s massive slum chronicle under the title Letters from Fontainhas. But if the films are letters, where and what is Fontainhas? The short answer is that it no longer exists, at least not in the form it did when Costa filmed it. Fontainhas was an outlying neighborhood of Lisbon, a meld of casbah and shantytown. Before the year 2000, a visitor to the district might see immigrants, mostly from Portugal’s former colonies, squatting in single rooms alongside destitute native Portuguese. In those days, city buses still drove into the neighborhood, depositing low-wage workers at its mouth. During the years between 2000 and 2005, however, demolition workers entered the heart of Fontainhas, marking its man-made structures with yellow X’s. Piece by piece, they cleared the area with bulldozers and fubars. Some of the inhabitants were relocated to public housing; many of the immigrants were dispersed in an ironic version of the diaspora that brought them to Lisbon in the first place. The films that comprise the Criterion box set—which includes Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth, and the shorts Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters—chart the lives of these inhabitants through the destruction of Fontainhas and its aftermath.

Maybe it’s more helpful to think of Costa’s work as a cycle comprised of six films made over the course of thirteen years: the five films released as part of the Criterion box, plus Casa de lava, a reworking of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie shot in the island nation of Cape Verde. With letters as a constant motif, the films map the volley of Cape Verdean immigrants between the Lisbon slum Fontainhas and the bleak heat of Cape Verde.

In Casa de lava, Cape Verde is a wasteland with little room for male labor, where an unpromising emigration is the only choice for men seeking work. In the films that follow, Costa presents Lisbon as a dead shell left behind by António Salazar’s repressive regime, where Cape Verdean immigrants and their neighbors share in economies without money, through various forms of casual labor and exchange. Costa’s subjects are maids, beggars, vegetable peddlers, and construction workers. Yet despite the drudgery that forms the pulse of his films, these characters never trade a cent. We see them clean houses and sell vegetables, but they never accept anything but food, or flowers. We get the sense that these films are meant to transcend capital. This is a reason why Costa appears to be the last card-carrying member of an historical avant-garde, those artists who emptied their images of belatedness so that they might be as free as air and lighter than money.

Criticism of Pedro Costa divides roughly into two camps. In one corner: Mark Peranson and Cyril Neyrat, who work mostly for Cinema Scope magazine. These writers build the legend of Costa as slum-saint, acting as his primary hagiographers. In 2006, the obscurity of Costa’s films gave birth to Peranson’s harebrained “Vote for Pedro” campaign—a film festival lobby complete with t-shirts and tabloid-style editorials (“for those eager readers looking for even more on Colossal Youth, keep watching these pages”). Now that Costa has emerged from relative anonymity, critics like Neyrat praise him as the paragon of a new cinematic authenticity. In his essay accompanying the Criterion release, Neyrat charges Costa with “the invention of a new primitivism, of a new elementary simplicity, without denying the legacy of a century of cinema and the arts.” Yet Costa didn’t make these films alone: his characters, the letters they recite, the songs they sing, and the stories they tell, are all culled from the lives of Costa’s non-actor actors, blurring the line between documentary and fiction. These well-meaning hagiographers conceal the slum-dwellers and immigrants that Costa’s films forefront and rely on.

The other critical camp accuses Costa of aestheticizing poverty, of making “poverty porn.” This age-old indictment finds a champion in Armond White. In his review, “Portrait of a Black Man,” White writes that Costa’s “zombie-like characters inhabit miserable social conditions (poverty, drugs, AIDS) that Costa slants into a new existential complacency. The political indifference that prevails in contemporary film culture is newly indulged by Costa’s artiness. His style—long takes, chiaroscuro compositions, minimal movement—is a highly refined decadence. It allows guilt-free detachment from the reality of his characters and the many non-professional actors he enlists.” By denouncing this “artiness,” White is really attacking a Bressonian-Brechtian tradition, one that denies the audience easy access to the character’s point-of-view. This tradition spurns reverse angles and reactions shots, time-tested devices of escapist movies and TV. White reads this formalism as complacency; it is actually a vote—if we are going to have voting—for contemplation, a deliberate ethical maneuver against insincerity.

Disdained by wage earners, seduced and cheated by the middle class, Costa’s slum-dwellers and immigrants have also been neglected by his critics. It’s become unpopular to point out the obvious: Costa confronts his audience with a population of wayfarers and drug addicts, a volatile lumpenproletariat. It is his gamble that this constellation of characters can be united through the pain of their shared memory.

Casa de lava is Costa’s second film and his inaugural letter, a foreboding salutation of sexual and political entrapment sweltering with the logic of colonization. The film begins with footage of lava pouring from the Pico volcano in Cape Verde. After two soundless minutes, a fleet of violas sweeps in, followed by a rush of images that will echo throughout the Cape Verdean cycle: mixed-race women standing in various states of repose, with their eyes directed off-screen. These initial moments are hallmarks of Costa’s early minimalism. The viola sonata is Paul Hindemith’s, and it harks back to his Gebrauchsmusik, or music for non-musicians performed in service of a political point. This is Costa’s dramaturgy boiled down: non-actors voicing themselves as a political gesture. That Costa chooses to open the film with a collection of mixed-race women is crucial to the rationale of Casa de Lava: this is a film about the sexual drive of the colonizer, in this case white Portuguese, as it persists in liberal politics. We soon discover that these women are the underlaborers of the island, and that Costa wants us to contemplate their bodies. The flowing lava of the opening sequence, which will harden into unregenerate rock, reflects back on the heartache of Cape Verde from its explosion of independence in 1975 to the country’s slow economic death ever since. Costa’s early style is to be understood as a minimalism, but it’s a Bressonian minimalism of precision where nothing is wasted. A handful of elements are employed—archival footage, women’s bodies, violas—for maximal effect.

Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (2001), though not part of the Cape Verdean cycle, refines this minimalism. For this reason it is probably the quickest route to the heart of Costa’s evolving aesthetic. The film—made during the Fontainhas years—is an ars poetica couched in a portrayal of the uncompromising filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. From the 1960’s to Huillet’s death in 2006, the partners co-directed elliptical, word-drunk films, like The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). In Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? Costa treats Straub and Huillet as time-tested artists performing themselves. His economy is startling: with a stationary camera and a minimum of shot variations, he manages to nail down the pissed-off laboriousness of Huillet, who sits quietly editing their film Sicilia! (1999), and the exuberant rantings of Straub, whose hyper-kinetic waltz in and out of frame provides an almost musical counterpoint. A projector whirs and clicks onscreen. The tension between Straub and Huillet mounts, releases at the editing bench. Where is Straub going when he exits stage right? A minor fiction is born as he wanders down an unseen hallway. The frame suddenly becomes a threshold.

This reductive technique is Costa’s ethic at work, achieved by a frank admission: there are epistemological limits to the frame, there are images the camera cannot and should not capture. By subtracting the images available to the viewer, by “closing the door,” as he sometimes puts it, Costa achieves a tenuous balance that highlights the visual exchange between the remaining figures. Straub’s movement begins to require Huillet’s stillness, just as Huillet’s edits require Straub’s input. And so Costa sets his subjects in motion, allowing their conversations to elaborate his own principles. “One fine day,” Straub exhorts, “you realize it’s better to see as little as possible.” For Costa that day has already come. The hidden smile of the film’s title lies precisely where the viewer least expects it: just out of view, on the lips of its filmmaker, Costa.

In Ossos, his first letter from the Fontainhas slum, Costa brings his minimalist technique (the film’s title translates to “Bones”) to bear on the other side of the post-colonial nexus. The film focuses on Fontainhas residents as they weave in and out of Lisbon for work, usually as housekeepers or beggars. The city, which took a back seat in Casa de lava, comes to the fore as a center of capital and sexual exploitation. This is something that comes up in Casa de Lava, too, when Mariana, a well-meaning Portuguese nurse, develops an insatiable sexual appetite upon her arrival at Cape Verde. The capacity for sustained sexual desire seems tied in Casa de lava to the sexual politics of colonialization. In Ossos, Costa is more interested in the sexual politics of capital accumulation. This is why his figure for the sexual tourist in Ossos is not so much an insatiable whore as a middle-class vampire.

Of all Costa’s films, Ossos represents his most sustained engagement with liberalism. The film can be read as a distress signal from the slums, warning against neoliberal charity. Here, our only figure of relative wealth is Eduarda, a nurse who tricks Nuno, a young resident of Fontainhas, into bringing his infant to the hospital where she works. In the hands of a Hollywood director, the story might be more The Blind Side than The Night of the Hunter. The nurse’s interaction with Nuno would be presented as humane. Under Costa, Eduarda’s actions are philanthropic in form, but always dubious in action. For if Mariana was young and pretty, and the sex in Casa de lava was more or less about mutual desire, Eduarda’s sensuality is something different: middle-aged and thin, she reverses the power dynamic found in Costa’s earlier film, because she’s in a more clear-cut position to exploit the slum dwellers that appeal to her. Eduarda is the one with the information, with the money, with the place to stay in the city, and all of her scenes are heavy with disgust and expectation. She is discomforting, sleazy in her prim white nightgown, and we are forced to keep in mind the desire on which her charity depends.

When it comes to her relationship with other residents of Fontainhas, Eduarda’s brand of sensual maternalism is no less unsettling. Suspicious as we are of Eduarda in her role as nurse after her dealings with Nuno’s baby, it is hard to sympathize with her even when she saves the life of the child’s mother, who has come to clean her house. Even if in theory her apartment has an open-door policy for residents of Fontainhas, Costa persists in shooting her door as closed, locked. In Eduarda’s apartment, the focus is not on crossing a threshold so much as opening and closing, locking and unlocking, highlighting the unevenness of exchange between her and the slum dwellers.

In the figure of Eduarda, the liberal impulse towards the poor looks more like a combination of paternalism, voyeurism, and sexual exploitation. Her intercession in the lives of slum dwellers is little more than slumming, and by the end of Ossos we see her hanging out in Fontainhas, tipsily heading for a bedroom. This is the film’s end point of liberal sympathy, but it is also an attempt to come to terms with the limits of Costa’s own project and its potential connection to a gentrification nightmare that culminates in the slum clearances of In Vanda’s Room. In an interview for the Criterion Collection release, Costa describes himself as a “petit bourgeois” among the slum dwellers; in this sense, something of the liberal vampire haunts him, too. His next two films, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, his most critically admired, are an attempt to face up to this fact by subtracting himself as much as possible. This reduction leaves him room to document the end of Fontainhas.

In an early sequence of In Vanda’s Room, a small fire lights a narrow alley in the foreground, as chunks of debris pile in the distance. A pack of schoolchildren passes through, oblivious to the falling concrete. The demolition of Fontainhas is under way. Its inhabitants are tidying up their unauthorized living spaces, choosing the few items of sentimental value they can freight into the next world, wherever that may be. If Costa now manages to lend his imagery an elemental vitality, it’s because the enormity of the disaster, the likelihood that it will be repeated with great speed throughout the developing world, retains its biblical echo. This is why one slum dweller warns, “Beware Noah’s Ark! Noah’s Ark is coming!” Costa delicately sanctions these messages, and embellishes them by having Vanda (of the film’s title) discover a model boat, an ark, later in the film, in a scene that was clearly staged. The minimalism here is so reductive that Costa merely chooses between authoring and authorizing; he uses the distinction to maintain a documentary veracity without relinquishing his aesthetic sense.

Slum clearances like the one documented in Costa’s film have a long history. The most famous of the historical evicted are probably those forced to move by Baron Haussmann’s restructuring of Paris during the Second Empire, in the interest of modernization, sanitation, the free-flow of traffic, and the prevention of working class barricades. Today, especially after Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, slum clearances tend to be associated with the Third World, where, as Davis writes, “every year hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of poor people—legal tenants as well as squatters—are forcibly evicted” from their neighborhoods. But even outside the Third World, much of the urban poor is subject to forcible removal, often without much notice or compensation; when provided with alternate housing, it is almost always on the outskirts of the city, further away from work and familiar ground.

The gravity of slum clearance affords Costa the chance to shed film, with its shackling allusive weight, in favor of DV. This technological leap-of-faith is often used to explain the primitive, docufictional feel of In Vanda’s Room. This explanation rings false, and it dehumanizes Vanda Duarte, who is Costa’s great Brechtian actress, precisely because she refuses to play a predetermined role; instead, she plays the film, willfully destabilizing it by performing herself. In Vanda’s Room is the director’s only work about the living—no zombie immigrants or liberal vampires—and Vanda, a kind of slum Diogenes, is its heartbeat. Shuttered inside her chamber, Vanda hacks and coughs, sleeps all day, and prepares her drugs. She shares everything freely, and exits only to peddle vegetables from door to door in the neighborhood. Her room is a polis, and in her arguments with other slum dwellers, she matches her director as a furious dialectician. When the self-pitying Nhurro laments, “Life has shown me nothing but contempt,” Vanda sternly dresses him down: “This is the life we want, doing drugs.”

Vanda’s room is a space of equality, but it is not a scene without labor or exchange. For offering some pills, Vanda receives a bouquet of flowers, one that later decorates her room in Colossal Youth. Her labor is a different story altogether. Aside from selling vegetables, Vanda’s most involved work is the protracted freebasing of heroin. This labor, performed with razors on an open phonebook, is destructive. It also represents a problem—not just for Vanda, in that she has a “drug problem,” but on larger scale: it is a problem of the self-interested poor on whom no cooperative politics can rely. What do you do, Costa asks, with those who no longer hope for a better life? What kind of stories do they yield?

Elsewhere in Fontainhas the mood is diluvian. The residents help each other erect a lean-to from a tarp. In a film prepossessed by the rhythms of life, everyone talks of impending death, wondering where they might end up after the flood. The film closes with demolition workers resting on a jutting rock. This lonely altar offers up Fontainhas for sacrifice, and it is the film’s most compelling image of subtraction.

In Colossal Youth, Lisbon leaves Costa’s cast to rot for good. Ventura, Costa’s premier method-actor and a former construction worker, is our guide to the devastation. In the earlier films, Fontainhas was decrepit. But its economy of space and its broken-down walls allowed for the sociality cultivated by both the slum-dwelling Vanda and Eduarda, the nurse. By Colossal Youth, however, Fontainhas has been cleared, and its inhabitants have mostly been relocated to new housing projects on the outskirts of Lisbon. The new buildings isolate their residents as much from each other as from Lisbon proper.

Vanda reemerges as the figure most comfortable in her new apartment. She is a mother now, older and bloated on beer, and she spends her days sitting in bed, watching TV. This—Vanda’s new room—is just as public as her old one, but few people stop by, save her daughter and Ventura. The camera pauses on Vanda’s walls. They are imposing, painted a sterile white that washes out any decoration, not to mention Vanda herself. A force-of-nature before, she’s strangely inert in Colossal Youth.

After the vibrancy of In Vanda’s Room, death after relocation is quiet, disconnected, built towards forgetting. And against the construction of the new housing project, Ventura and Costa work to condense the demolished slum into a transportable culture, a letter to send across time. To this end, Ventura acts as Costa’s conduit, a black Tiresias traveling between the scattered homes of his “children,” trying to rescue a fragment of Fontainhas in new circumstances defined by distance rather than nearness, locked doors rather than open corridors, television rather than conversation.

Colossal Youth is Costa’s culminating ode not just to Fontainhas but to Cape Verdean labor in Lisbon. Working off the books, under the table, or simply without money, Costa’s subjects form the fringe economy of a liberal democracy. This is Fanon’s lumpenproletariat: seething and destructive, drug-addled and abandoned. Costa’s unsung achievement in the Cape Verdean cycle is to face this group and heed its warning, to salvage its culture from the cleared slums and make it cohere.

If Costa’s work reached critical mass with the release of Letters From Fontainhas, the intervening years have been a come down. Maybe Costa didn’t know where to turn in the aftermath of Fontainhas. Without his cast, he seems lost. Certainly it’s difficult to reconcile Ne Change Rien (2009), a music film that follows the French actress Jeanne Balibar, with the man who shot Vanda Duarte cooking heroin in her bedroom. Yet it’s just as hard to imagine that Costa has abandoned the memory of Fontainhas. Five years separated Casa de lava from the slum films that followed. So assuming another letter surfaces, who might it be written for?

The final images of Costa’s films are always self-referential. Sometimes these images look backwards, like at the end of In Vanda’s Room, where you can see the name “Nuno” (the father from Ossos) spray-painted on a wall behind the stone altar. Elsewhere, they project forward to Costa’s future work, as in Casa de lava, which ends with a shot of a girl waking up in a doorway, going inside, and exiting the frame with a bucket on the way to work. The same girl resurfaces in Ossos—shot in another country—a few years later. In this sense, the final sequence of Colossal Youth might provide some insight into his work after Ne Change Rien. Here, Ventura, heavy with memories of labor, lies sprawled on Vanda’s bed. Vanda has entrusted him with babysitting her daughter, who crawls unattended on the floor below. The image of the child is a strange reminder of the title’s literal translation, once a slogan of Cape Verdean independence: Youth on the March. The scene is disturbing because you‘re waiting, at first for something to happen to her, then you wonder about her growing up.

Costa’s other Fontainhas films don’t introduce children as a question like the final scene of Colossal Youth does. The earlier films are more interested in adults—the only child given a lot of screen time is Nuno’s baby in Ossos, but he spends most of the film in a trash bag. In this scene, however, Vanda’s daughter, left as the only figure moving in the frame, comes to life, unlike her mother, and we’re forced to consider her, to think about what it would mean to grow up as Vanda’s daughter in this new white-washed building. We know what happens to the children of Fontainhas as grown-ups—this is a subject of In Vanda’s Room in particular—but Vanda’s daughter is a figure for a new generation, and she marks out the stakes of Costa’s project against forgetting. After the clearance of Fontainhas, after all, the only living connection between the crawling infant and Ventura’s memory, the culture he carries from place to place, is the film itself.

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