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Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa
 

Ossos (1997)         In Vanda’s Room (2000)         Colossal Youth (2006)

 

One of the most important artists on the international film scene today, Portuguese director Pedro Costa has been steadily building an impressive body of work since the late eighties. And these are the three films that put him on the map: spare, painterly portraits of battered, largely immigrant lives in the slums of Fontainhas, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. Hypnotic, controlled works, Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth confirm Costa as a provocative new cinematic poet, one who locates beauty in the most unlikely of places.


 

(aka "Bones" )

 

directed by Pedro Costa
Portugal / France / Denmark 1997

 

OSSOS revolves around an unplanned, unwelcome pregnancy. It takes place in a Creole shanty town on the outskirts of Lisbon called Estrela d'África. The father doesn’t want to deal with it, and the mother, Tina, doesn’t want to deal with it alone. She has to literally drag the father from the bed into the other room to make him be with her and the baby. Rolling onto his side away from them, he continues to resist the engagement, until the baby’s safety puts him in motion. It is a third character, Clotilde, who is the most central character and works as perpetual intercessor on Tina’s behalf. While this is the reductive gist, how director Pedro Costa navigates the story is the event.

There is an active economy at work that recalls Bresson, but given their different objectives, Costa's is warmer and more natural. What is precious about Costa's cinema is its egalitarian sweep, the raised status of "extras." There are two girls that work in a kitchen together, recurring mostly as passer-bys or passed-bys, who contribute significantly to the film. There are one-timers like a businessman the father begs from, outside the subway stop. Catching his nuance in the whole scene, before and after contact with the begging father, is indicative of the care the face in the crowd gets. The anonymous face in the crowd enjoys a first-class ticket via the implicature of Costa’s mise-en-scene. OSSOS is the fixation on the crowd that is community, so that it becomes people again—a dialectical enterprise of spectatorship.

The film situates its dramatic discourse in the middle of things and de-dramatizes itself, using low- to mid-range ellipses so that the elided action can be readily deduced, if not immediately, then soon, as the narrative enclosure extends in strict chronological order. Indeed, there seems no place in OSSOS for flashback, just as in Costa’s earlier CASA DE LAVA.

The precise framings often defer the drama’s root element, upon which conditioned gazes fixate, to the exclusion of a range of visual surplus, which for Costa is the most important. For example, not the causal particular that motivates a doctor’s visit, but, rather, the dual regard of mother and child locked in a moment together. The cohering story bits come soon enough, but situated in the proportion that Costa desires. In this example of hospital visit, a spectator, having held onto the unshrink-wrapped moment, can go right back to it, adding the deferred context to retrospectively re-live the mother’s deliberation about how to handle the emergency. Flashbacks are left to be performed in the speculative minds. It is the mother’s deliberation, and this situation of dependence between mother and child, that is the foreground, the socially relevant situation. The spectator can restore the eschewed melodrama’s one-stop shopping of reasons—money, medical insurance, responsibility, and explanations of what and how. One can see an environment where a hospital visit can be a risky enterprise, questioning parental suitability and indicting socio-economic under performance.

The long takes, with tight framings corralling incidental surplus, privileges the after effects, locating the play of pressure that is typically backgrounded, and hence, sacrificed to the economics of visual perception. Here, the aftermath comes first, with the specific causes coming second, to the effect which an x-ray of abstract pressures is produced.

As an example of Bressonian economy, there is an early scene of a bus ride to Clotilde’s work, where the camera frames the father and Clotilde from waist to mid-section. We see the father’s hand, resting on his pant leg. This is held just long enough before Clotilde’s hand enters frame and comes to rest simply upon his. Some desired excess is given focus, despite the restrictive framing, such as the dirty fingernails of both hands. As the relationship isn’t understood yet, these restrictive framings play with hyper-dramatic readings about the relationship between these two people.

The bus rides in OSSOS are in nice contrast to Abbas Kiarostami’s beloved car interiors. With Costa’s mise-en-scene, the solitude of being alone on a bus full of people is used to rich effect, not to mention the lifeline of public transportation, connecting the displaced vital points, such as work and hospital. In the counter-image that soon follows to form a visual couplet with the first, we get the same waist to mid-section framing, this time of Tina and Clotilde sitting together on the bus, after leaving the hospital. Clotilde’s hand enters the frame and does not just come to rest upon Tina’s hand, but clasps it, differentiating the relationship.

The deferred disclosure of the context between Clotilde and the father, and his running off while she hangs clothes in a closet, is resolved soon enough as Clotilde meets Tina at the hospital and says that she came alone, thereby unlocking the suppressed plot details for narrative coherence. Clotilde is the personality that attempts to maintain the connection of the two brand-new, shell-shocked parents. Failing to get the father to show up to meet the mother and new-born at the hospital, she refuses to let him off the hook.

The visual styling that Costa achieves with Emmanuel Machuel, so very different from the same duo’s work on the gorgeous CASA DE LAVA, really enhances the character of the film. OSSOS is of close quarters, less illumination, with more night scenes. Even the outdoor shots typically occur in cramped alleys.

In the world of 5-star ratings, OSSOS deserves at least that much. out of

Fred Patton

Poster

Theatrical Release: September 2nd, 1997 (Venice Film Festival)

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Criterion (Spine # 509) - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Covers

This edition is only available in Criterion's Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa package:

 

 

 

Distribution Criterion
Region 1 - NTSC
Runtime 1:37:48
Video

1.66:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 6.63 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

 
Audio

Portuguese (Dolby Digital 2.0)

Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.66:1

Edition Details:
• New video conversation between Costa and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin (33:05)
• Video interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel (7:55))
• New video essay by artist Jeff Wall (12: 59)
• Gallery of photos by Mariana Viegas
• Video interviews with critic Joao Bernard da Costa (9:20)

 

DVD Release Date: March 30th, 2010
Carboard Slim Case in Box Set

Chapters 20

 

Comments

"Letters from Fontainhas : Three Films by Pedro Costa" is another impressive release from Criterion. While I don't believe that I saw the brilliance on my initial viewing of the films that many critics and fans of Costa find in his works, I must admit that these challenging and oftentimes rewarding films (in particular "Ossos" and "Colossal Youth") represent the impressive work of a highly talented filmmaker. I say that the films are challenging because, with the exception of "Ossos" (and even here there are traces of the style found in Costa's subsequent works), the films are largely plotless, float about without narrative cohesion, and feature long stretches without any dialogue. That being said, they have attracted a number of very passionate admirers, and while I cannot count myself as one, I would say that all three are good films that are worth the viewing investment.

All three films in this set exhibit a different image quality. "Ossos", the oldest film here, is also the only one shot on film. The image is very strong and sharp. As the booklet tells us, the film has undergone a full restoration supervised by Costa and has had all instances of damage removed (at least I didn't catch any). What's more, this release corrects for the original Gemini release by presenting the film uncropped and in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. I've included a couple of captures from the original Gemini release, and as you can see the Criterion is superior in every way. Not only does it have significantly improved sharpness and clarity, but the colors are also more natural, the artifacts gone, and there's a significant amount of information on all four sides that was missing in the Gemini release. The story is not so good for the other two features. "In Vanda's Room", which was converted from PAL to NTSC for this release, suffers from interlacing with visible combing and is full of artifacts like jaggies and noise. Like its successor, "In Vanda's Room" was shot on SD digital video, using only natural lighting and the image looks about like what you'd expect. The well illuminated shots are clear enough, but the images in some of the darker shots can on occasion be indiscernible. Although it too was shot in digital video, the transfer is progressive and suffers from fewer artifacts. It may be slightly cleaner, but there's definitely some noise to be found here as well. As the booklet states, Costa supervised a color correction on the last two films in the set as well.

All three films are presented with their original Portuguese soundtracks and sound quite nice in their DD mono. Audio defect in "Ossos" were fixed, but so far as I can tell, the digital soundtracks for the other two films remain unchanged. None of the audio suffers from any obvious defects, but you'll get what you expect out of a 2.0 master. All three films have newly commissioned optional English subtitles, that are on caliber with what you'd expect from a production house like Criterion.

This set, which surely ranks among the most extras-stacked in the collection, provides enough bonus materials to keep even the most die hard Costa fan satisfied. Unfortunately, given the sheer volume of material included here, I was unable to experience it all before writing this review. However, I can say that what I have seen was very informative and gave a tremendous amount of insight into the material. Of particular interest to fans will be the conversations between Costa and Gorin in which they delve into any number of topics on the film. Also included are short films by Costa, and a full audio commentary on "In Vanda's Room", amongst many others.

Over all this is another wonderful set from one of the all time great home video production houses. Fans of the films will not be disappointed and are strongly encouraged to take the plunge. It should be noted that UK based Masters of Cinema also plan to release SDs of "In Vanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth" later in 2010. While details are sketchy at this time, it's doubtful that "In Vanda's Room" will be interlaced.

 



DVD Menus
 

 


 

Screen Captures

(Gemini Video Editions - Region 2 - PAL - TOP vs. Criterion (Spine # 509) - Region 1 - NTSC - BOTTOM)

 

 (Gemini Video Editions - Region 2 - PAL - TOP vs. Criterion (Spine # 509) - Region 1 - NTSC - BOTTOM)

 

 

 

 

 


(aka "In Vanda's Room" )

 

directed by Pedro Costa
Portugal/Germany/Switzerland/Italy 2000

 

For the extraordinarily beautiful second film in his Fontainhas trilogy, Pedro Costa jettisoned his earlier films’ larger crews to burrow even deeper into the Lisbon ghetto and the lives of its desperate inhabitants. With the intimate feel of a documentary and the texture of a Vermeer painting, In Vanda’s Room takes an unflinching, fragmentary look at a handful of self-destructive, marginalized people, but is centered around the heroin-addicted Vanda Duarte. Costa presents the daily routines of Vanda and her neighbors with disarming matter-of-factness, and through his camera, individuals whom many would deem disposable become vivid and vital. This was Costa’s first use of digital video, and the evocative images he created remain some of the medium’s most astonishing.

Excerpt of review from Criterion located HERE

Poster

Theatrical Release: March 2nd, 2000

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DVD Review: Criterion (Spine # 510) - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

This edition is only available in Criterion's Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa package:

 

 

 

Distribution

Criterion

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 2:50:36
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 5.92 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio Portuguese (Dolby Digital 2.0)
Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• New audio commentary featuring Costa in conversation with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
• Gallery of photos by Richard Dumas
• Theatrical trailer

DVD Release Date:
Carboard Slim Case in Box Set

Chapters 40

  



DVD Menus
 

 


Screen Captures

 

 

 

 

 
Combing

 


(aka "Colossal Youth" )

 

directed by Pedro Costa
France/Portugal/Switzerland 2006

 

The Portuguese film “Colossal Youth” was one of the most fascinating competition entries at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. To judge by the noisy walkouts during its press screening, it was also one of the most disliked — although the truer word might be misunderstood. Beautifully photographed, this elliptical, sometime confounding, often mysterious and wholly beguiling mixture of fiction and nonfiction looks and sounds as if it were made on another planet. And, in some respects, it was.

Directed by Pedro Costa, whose earlier work I’m woefully unfamiliar with, “Colossal Youth” is something of a rarity, at least in the context of contemporary cinema. A work of cinematic art rather than a work of industrial or commercial art, it resists easy consumption. Its episodic narrative, which Mr. Costa developed with his nonprofessional cast and shot in digital video, unfolds as a series of seemingly disconnected encounters. Things happen, people talk, as in real life, but without the crutch of a plot. A man identified only as Ventura moves through rooms and streets visiting men and women who may or may not be his children. They call him “Papa,” smoke, eat, tell stories, live. It’s as simple as that, even if it’s also complex.

Excerpt of review from Manohla Dargis located HERE

Theatrical Release: November 23rd, 2006

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DVD Review: Criterion (Spine # 511) - Region 1 - PAL

DVD Box Cover

This edition is only available in Criterion's Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa package:

 

 

 

Distribution

Criterion

Region 1 - PAL

Runtime 2:36:00
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 4.99 mb/s
PAL 720x576 25.00 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio Portuguese (Dolby Digital 2.0)
Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• New video conversation between Costa and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin (23:03)
• Theatrical trailer

DVD Release Date:
Carboard Slim Case in Box Set

Chapters 31

 



DVD Menus
 

 


Screen Captures

 

 

 

 

 


Supplement Disc

 

Features

Edition Details:
• New selected-scene audio commentary for Colossal Youth with critic Cyril Neyrat and author-philosopher Jacques Rancière
• All Blossoms Again, a feature-length documentary on Costa (1:20:42)
• Tarrafal (17:46)
• The Rabbit Hunters (23:11)
• Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female, a video installation piece by Costa (34:44)
• 45 Page Fully Illustrated Booklet

 

 



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