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The Vanda Trilogy


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Next week Criterion will release Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa, also known as The Vanda Trilogy. My first experience of Costa was seeing the final film in the trilogy, Colossal Youth, at Toronto in 2006. It was one of those rare experiences where, at the end, I leaned over to my friend and said, "Well, I didn't know the cinema could be that." In the years since I've caught up with all but one of his features, the latest, and I now think of him as one of The Greats. I'd compare this upcoming DVD release with the Dreyer box a few years ago, in the sense that it will bring a great deal more exposure to a filmmaker who had been difficult to see.

Costa's a difficult filmmaker, even by the slow, formalist standards we've set with the latest iteration of our list. The first film in the trilogy, Bones (Ossos, 1997), will be recognizable to those of you who are fans of the Dardennes. But the second one is a challenge. All three films are set in and around the crumbling Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, where immigrants, most of them from Cape Verde, spend their time looking for work and scoring heroin. In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) focuses largely on a junkie named Vanda Duarte and her sister. It's right around three hours, shot on low-cost video, and is by nearly any standard slow. (I happen to also think it's a masterpiece.) The final film, Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha, 2006), also features Vanda, but its hero is an elderly black man named Ventura who wants to move his family from Fontainhas to the city's new, crystal-white housing project. Formally, it's quite a bit different from the first two and reveals Costa's debt to Straub-Huillet.

I want to encourage everyone who's up for the challenge to track down these discs. A year or two ago I contributed a chapter about Costa to Ken Morefield's book, Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. It's called "Pedro Costa's 'Vanda Trilogy' and the Limits of Narrative Cinema as a Contemplative Art." (I'd also encourage you to track down Ken's book, which also includes contributions from Ken, Doug Cummings, and Mike Hertenstein.) Here's a summary of my chapter, which goes some way, I hope, in explaining why I think he's an Arts & Faith-friendly director:

The work of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa is a useful test case for a discussion of the limits of narrative cinema as a contemplative art. Without abandoning narrative altogether, Costa has over the past two decades moved progressively toward abstraction and, in the process, has discovered his own brand of what avant-garde filmmaker Nathanial Dorsky calls “devotional cinema”: “a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable” (Dorsky, 27). In particular, Costa’s trilogy of feature films set in and around Fontainhas, an immigrant slum in Lisbon, demonstrates an increasing dissatisfaction with the tropes and traps of conventional cinematic storytelling. In the “Vanda Trilogy,” as it has become known—Bones (Ossos, 1997), In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000), and Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha, 2006)—Costa pays homage to other spiritually-minded filmmakers such as Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Yasujiro Ozu, while also borrowing from the formal and explicitly political legacies of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, and Daniele Huillet, the latter two of whom are the subject of Costa’s 2001 documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?). Costa’s films are infected with the same nostalgia for Modernism that characterizes so much of today’s art cinema, where the rigor of Bresson and the alienating camera of Michelangelo Antonioni threaten to inspire a new “Tradition of Quality” characterized by expressionless faces, glacial pacing, and calculated stabs at transcendence. But what distinguishes Costa from his contemporaries is his uncynical commitment to form and ethics, which are bound in his films not by transcendence but by imminence—that is, by the sacred dignity of the material, human world.
Edited by Darren H
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Awesome description, thanks. Netflix has all three releasing 3/30/10. I'm going to give Ossos a try first.

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Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I you give'em a shot, definitely watch them in order. The first puts Fontainhas in some context, the second immerses viewers in day-to-day life there, and the third documents its destruction.

That sounds fascinating. It also sounds like the trilogy has a real theme. So many people these days are making "trilogies." Some of them might only be made to appeal to people like me that can't see only one out of any three.

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Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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It's convenient to think of those three films as a trilogy, but the movie Costa made before Ossos, Casa de Lava, is set in Cape Verde and introduces the kinds of characters we'll later meet in Fontainhas. He's also made several short films set in Fontainhas that feature many of the same people. I've watched bad copies on YouTube but am really excited to see them on the new Criterion DVDs. I wrote a bit about Casa de Lave on Long Pauses. I don't think it's been released in America, but there's a great region-free DVD.

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Dave Kehr had a great piece about this DVD release in the New York Times.

. . . Fontainhas changes over the course of the three films, as does Mr. Costa’s way of looking at it. In the first film, shot in 35 millimeter by Emmanuel Machuel (who photographed Robert Bresson’s 1983 film “L’Argent”), the neighborhood seems largely intact and is woven into the larger fabric of the city; the visual emphasis is on bright, vivid colors and harmonious widescreen compositions.

By the time of “Vanda’s Room,” three years later, the jackhammers and backhoes of urban renewal can be heard gnawing away off screen, and the visual design turns to dark interiors illuminated by dramatic shafts of light, shot by Mr. Costa himself, operating a digital video camera. “Colossal Youth” finds the area almost depopulated, most of its residents having moved to antiseptic housing developments, the few remaining holdouts living as squatters. The images now are almost drained of color, and Mr. Costa frames his protagonist (both the actor and the character are simply called “Ventura”) against harshly geometrical backgrounds that might have come out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” . . .

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The DVDs were released this week, and it really is an amazing package. One word of advice: If you're new to Costa and want to give these films a shot, I'd recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary first. It comes on a 4th disc (supplements), so I'm not sure how readily available it will be from Netflix, but it really is a useful introduction to his working methods. He literally road a bus to Fountainhas every day for years. Making these films was his life. I loved his comment about commercial filmmaking: "I'm not looking down on them [other filmmakers], but what they do is a different job, a different occupation. I work every day. That's not true of other filmmakers."

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All this has been great news. Looking forward to having Costa so readily available.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I don't think the documentary is available. Currently Ossos ("short wait", we'll see what that means) is listed right behind Beau Travail ("very long wait," and indeed, it's been months) in my queue.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 1 month later...

I am not gellin' with these. They gotta go back, I've held on to them too long. There are other films that are being held up while I hem and haw over Costa.

It's kind of like Ozu with me and these Costa films -- I can kind of see why it's a great concept, but it ain't reaching me. And this is more glacial than I can currently handle.

I'll give it a try again some day, promise. And I am glad I took a look. He's considered by many one of the six greatest living filmmakers. It's just the wrong time in life for me to attempt these films.

Although, I did think for a moment that I loved Ossos. I really did, but then I fell asleep. More than once.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I just noticed your post, Stef. Good for you for trying. I suspect that if I hadn't first experienced Costa via a film festival screening of Colossal Youth, where it was projected beautifully and big, I might have been less enthusiastic about him. There's something cinematic about these films, which is odd considering that two of them were shot on low-grade DV. For the record, I still don't love Ozu the way I feel I should love Ozu.

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I just noticed your post, Stef. Good for you for trying. I suspect that if I hadn't first experienced Costa via a film festival screening of Colossal Youth, where it was projected beautifully and big, I might have been less enthusiastic about him. There's something cinematic about these films, which is odd considering that two of them were shot on low-grade DV. For the record, I still don't love Ozu the way I feel I should love Ozu.

I don't know that I'm not enthusiastic yet. I am going to attempt them again eariler than I even thought. Some of it comes down to simple bad timing, and still, after five months, being unused to being up at 5 am. (I am an 11 o'clock-get-up-and-walk-to-the-coffee-shop-to-read kind of a guy.)

I am gellin' with contemplative cinema a whole lot more these days. Of which, these are supreme.

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In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 1 year later...

Pardon my bump.

I ADORE this trilogy so much. Fans of Bresson and Straub should take great big note. Criterion really reminded me why I love them so much with the job they did on the presentation. I was one of the winners (toot toot) of that one-liner competition Criterion did on their Facebook a while back with this: "MY ESSENTIAL CRITERION: LETTERS FROM FONTAINHAS In our increasingly technological world FAR too distracted and overstimulated, Pedro Costa forces us to quiet our souls and pay attention to the transcendental beauty in the minutiae of daily life in a way unmatched since Robert Bresson - and WITHOUT Criterion, too many of us would have missed this sympathetic whisper in the cacophonous crowd." I probably should have been disqualified for such a terrible sentence, but hey - the gift certificate helped me upgrade to a Blu Solaris.

While I think Ossos has a good deal of similarities with L'enfant, I think there is one major distinction: the young father in Ossos seems to really be trying, and makes his decision out of desperation. I have burned into my mind a scene where he is trying hard to feed the baby and the look on his face was just so very heart wrenching to me. It was a blend of desperate frustration and a lack of the proper resources, not to mention a lack of an ability to understand that one has a lack of proper resources - choked back tears, subtlety.

In Vanda's Room will disable you from ever using the words 'gritty realism' about a film again. It is excruciating, but rewarding. Eat your vegetables.

Colossal Youth is absolutely wonderful. If you see anything from Costa, see that (edit: I personally believe Room should be prerequisite viewing to Youth, but if you can/are willing to only see one, see the latter). Very rarely does one come across a filmmaker who seems to have been a great painter in a past life. Watch for his use of light. Something like Francisco Goya's Pinturas negras period, but on DV. Sparse, small light is so delicately used throughout the entire trilogy, but in Colossal Youth it takes on whole new meanings. The crisp, clean, new (but characterless) projects shining in the sun serve as a strong counterpoint for all the nostalgia of the decaying yet beautifully drab Fontainhas old neighborhood. The beauty of human interaction and conversations upon conversations is being edged out by the constant gazing noise of Vanda's television set in her new place - her very child becoming nearly an afterthought. Not to mention Ventura has one of those faces Bresson would have absolutely fallen over himself to use as a model. The chorus of the film is Ventura's recitation of a letter (each time making the letter more perfect, for his friend to eventually send) that is one of simple elegance that made my heart ache. Once recited in completion, his friend's response is pure wistful gold.

Finally, the shorts Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters are twin must-see flipsides of the same coin. Very interesting stuff there, but be sure to watch them together, it gives them a neat effect.

Speaking of advice on viewing, BE AWAKE. These films require a GREAT deal of attention, they are the COMPLETE opposite of the passive inactivity of watching TV. They are more akin to viewing an art piece. Do not start watching them if you are at all sleepy. I suggest having coffee or tea on hand. Also, watch them in pitch black darkness, to get the full effect of his painterly use of light. The darkness of the room you are in is as important as watching say, Stan Brakhage's pieces. I agree, they really are cinematic in nature, and gave me a great deal of faith in the power of digital video.

Criterion's box is incredible. The interviews between Gorin and Costa are fantastic. I would love to be able to have a conversation with Costa. He's just so... cozy. Every extra is spot on and interesting.

This one is a challenge, but the payoff is so very rewarding. Transcendental light, meditative faces, gritty lives yet poetic transcendence: high art in low places.

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Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν.

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  • 2 years later...

Bump.

 

I'd love for a few more people to take a chance on these films, especially as we prepare to vote on Memory films. Colossal Youth is partly about one elderly man's memories but, in a larger sense, it's about historical memory and about the ways people in power bulldoze (literally) remnants of past lives and past political conditions. As I mentioned in the opening post here, Costa's work is not for everyone, but I think Colossal Youth stands alongside Night and Fog.

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Bump.

 

I'd love for a few more people to take a chance on these films, especially as we prepare to vote on Memory films. Colossal Youth is partly about one elderly man's memories but, in a larger sense, it's about historical memory and about the ways people in power bulldoze (literally) remnants of past lives and past political conditions. As I mentioned in the opening post here, Costa's work is not for everyone, but I think Colossal Youth stands alongside Night and Fog.

 

I will try to make it a priority in the next few months.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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I wrote this earlier in the thread:

 

The DVDs were released this week, and it really is an amazing package. One word of advice: If you're new to Costa and want to give these films a shot, I'd recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary first. It comes on a 4th disc (supplements), so I'm not sure how readily available it will be from Netflix, but it really is a useful introduction to his working methods. He literally road a bus to Fountainhas every day for years. Making these films was his life. I loved his comment about commercial filmmaking: "I'm not looking down on them [other filmmakers], but what they do is a different job, a different occupation. I work every day. That's not true of other filmmakers."

 

I talked to a filmmaker a couple weeks ago who knows Costa, so I asked what he knew about the new, in-the-works feature, which is apparently a continuation of the Fountainhas story. I'm paraphrasing, but he said, "It's coming, but Pedro is taking his time. For each day of work, he and the other members of the small crew pay themselves 40 euro out of the small budget."

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I wrote this earlier in the thread:

 

 

 

The DVDs were released this week, and it really is an amazing package. One word of advice: If you're new to Costa and want to give these films a shot, I'd recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary first. It comes on a 4th disc (supplements), so I'm not sure how readily available it will be from Netflix, but it really is a useful introduction to his working methods. He literally road a bus to Fountainhas every day for years. Making these films was his life. I loved his comment about commercial filmmaking: "I'm not looking down on them [other filmmakers], but what they do is a different job, a different occupation. I work every day. That's not true of other filmmakers."

 

I talked to a filmmaker a couple weeks ago who knows Costa, so I asked what he knew about the new, in-the-works feature, which is apparently a continuation of the Fountainhas story. I'm paraphrasing, but he said, "It's coming, but Pedro is taking his time. For each day of work, he and the other members of the small crew pay themselves 40 euro out of the small budget."

 

COLOSSAL YOUTH, IN VANDA'S ROOM, and OSSOS are all on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, so fairly accessible.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Thanks for pointing this thread out, Darren. I just went and seconded COLOSSAL YOUTH--I somehow missed it the first time around.

 

Consider me a fan of the trilogy, and especially CY. It's been a couple of years now since I saw it, but it has a setting and a visual sensibility that beautifully complement the memory elements that Darren mentions above.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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