AFS 2011: Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas Trilogy

The Auckland Film Society is screening three films by the Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa, starting with his 1997 film Ossos (Bones) on Monday May 30th, and continuing with No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth) in June. The three films—collectively the highlight of the society’s 2011 season—form a loose trilogy named after the shanty-town in which they’re set, a place that no longer exists: Fontaínhas, a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon. Costa is widely regarded as one of world cinema’s finest contemporary auteurs, yet aside from screenings of his most recent film (Ne Change Rien) at last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, the director’s work has not been screened in this country; these film society presentations mark the first exposure local audiences will have to his work.

Costa’s works (and these three films in particular) blur the lines between genuine documentary and fiction, and between subject and form. To achieve this, Costa employs no actors and exclusively uses real people from the slums. The elliptical plot of Ossos—the first film of the trilogy exploring life in Fontaínhas, and Costa’s third feature after 1989’s O Sangue (Blood) and 1994’s Casa de Lava—centres on the newborn infant of two hapless teenagers. Faced with the suicidal tendencies of the baby’s mother, the young father decides to take matters into his own hands, and ends up wandering the neighbourhood’s dilapidated, crumbling streets and buildings in search of a solution to his predicament. Of the film, Costa has said:

Ossos comes from very familiar things, things you can easily recall. It comes from Chaplin, from the melodramas of the beginning of the cinema, a boy with a baby in the streets, speeding dangerous cars, a loaf of bread, a prostitute, two or three kitchens. And a strong desire to be close to reality, to documentary, to be close to these people who are not actors, people that are very similar to the ones they’re depicting. The boy was a poor junky in real life and the housekeeper is a housekeeper. But even if there’s a desire to make a sort of documentary, it’s nevertheless fiction that carries the film on, saving it. Fiction is always a door that we want to open or close; a door that keeps us guessing.

For his next film, Costa wanted to do away with all the unnecessary equipment, lighting, and extra personnel that ordinarily attend a professional shoot on location. So he shot everything himself with a handheld DV camera, using natural and available light, thus gaining intimate access to his drug-addict subjects. “Come, you’ll see what our lives are really like,” Vanda and her sister Zita told Costa, “You used to ask us to be quiet [on the set of Ossos]; now we’re going to talk, you’re going to listen. That’s all we do: talk and take drugs.” The resultant film, Quarto da Vanda, runs 178 minutes.

The plot of Juventude em Marcha, the trilogy’s concluding part, is as follows: “an exhausted but graceful Cape Verdean named Ventura wanders between the ruins of his old Fontaínhas slum (now destroyed) and the antiseptic new areas where the residents have been relocated, looking for his wife and home but finding only ghosts and memories.” The Pacific Film Archive notes that “there’s little boundary between fiction, documentary, and avant-garde filmmaking here; scenes are united only by the character’s constant search for a place to call home, and by Costa’s astonishing lighting and framing of decaying walls and rugged visages.”

Further reading:

  1. Tim Wong’s essay “Introducing Pedro Costa” in The Lumière Reader
  2. Ana Balona de Oliviera in Mute magazine
  3. Bárbara Barroso on Ossos (Bones) for Senses of Cinema
  4. Miguel Marías on No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) for Senses of Cinema
  5. Crossing the Threshold,” an interview with Costa by Kieron Corless for the BFI
  6. Colossal Cinema: The Films of Pedro Costa,” an interview in Art in America by Eugene Kotlyarenko
  7. Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas Trilogy: Rooms for the Living and the Dead,” an essay by Cyril Neyrat for the Criterion Collection
  8. An extensive interview with Costa at GreenCine by Michael Guillén
  9. A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing,” transcripts of lectures given by Costa at the Tokyo Film School in March of 2004

The Auckland Film Society presents Pedro Costa’s Fontaínhas Trilogy at the Academy Cinemas on Lorne St. Ossos screens on Monday May 30th; Quarto da Vanda and Juventude em Marcha screen on June 7th and 20th respectively. Elsewhere, the Wellington Film Society presented Ossos on May 23rd; Quarto da Vanda will screen on June 13th, and Juventude em Marcha on June 27th. The Hamilton Film Society presents Ossos on June 13th, and the Dunedin Film Society presents Juventude em Marcha on June 1st. All three films screen from 35mm prints.

Three-session passes for any three Auckland Film Society screenings are available for $30, and a 12-month membership in the society is $165 ($140 for students). Members are entitled to generous discounts at the World Cinema Showcase in April, the NZ Film Festival in July, and cheaper rates year-round at the Academy, Capitol, and Rialto Cinemas, and the Victoria Picture Palace. The AFS website has more information.