By Johnny Ray Huston
In cinema you need a certain intimacy, and maybe a little solitude.
— Pedro Costa
In the 21st century, few if any directors have demonstrated the persistence of vision of Pedro Costa. This persistence is present in his dedication to the same primary setting, the Fountainhas shantytown within Lisbon, Portugal, and to real-life characters. (Only Tsai Ming-liang has approached his faithfulness to an ensemble of vérité actors). But more than that, it is a matter of Costa’s singularly intense devotion to cinema as a means for both documentary truth-telling and dramatic transformation.
Their titles are one way of entering the world of Costa’s movies. The films starring his male lead Ventura, 2006’s Colossal Youth (taking its name from a 1980 post-punk album by Young Marble Giants) and 2014’s Horse Money, sport potent clashes between two words. But when a woman is at the center of the story, her name — her presence — spills over into the title: 2000’s In Vanda’s Room focuses on smack-addled Vanda Duarte, while his latest work, 2019’s Vitalina Varela, is wholly named after its protagonist, a move that evokes classic examples of melodrama (Mildred Pierce) and formal rigor (Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles), both of which are abundantly present within Costa’s most recent vision.
The ramshackle places in Costa’s films are lived-in — marked and smudged walls, detritus on grimy floors — and the cinematography and framing can make an empty door sing a lovelorn song. Rail-thin and completely racked by asthmatic smoker’s coughs, setting her works and latest fix on an old phone book, Vanda of In Vanda’s Room spends almost the entirety of the movie in bed, yet the film is as much about the fast destruction of her neighborhood as it is about her gallows humor and slow deterioration. Portugal trailblazed harm reduction with its policies near the time of the movie’s release, and one can’t help but think of Larry Clark’s 1971 book of photographs, Tulsa, when sharing its pitilessly faithful look at drug usage. Gorgeous lensing tangoes with squalor. One character’s base needs stab through another’s storytelling. Costa’s compositional use of light, darkness, and color is painterly in a masterful sense, yet true to modernity; he never falls into sentimentality or beauty for beauty’s sake.
One triumph of Colossal Youth is that maybe no director more than Costa makes the transition to digital video without losing film’s rich depth, gaining a new nimbleness. Now on methadone and a mother, her hard edges softened, Vanda has gone from unknowingly dancing with death to resolutely and good-humoredly striking deals with it. But the movie’s star is incantatory Ventura, who repeats a profession of love — a lament learned by heart — over and over, and in doing so transforms documentary into drama. The personality of Fountainhas’s crumbling old buildings is replaced by the vulgar generic sterility of new ones. Sounds of construction and destruction are a constant. The movie is sweepingly magnificent, and humble. Costa closes with a gorgeous, tranquil 360-degree panorama.
In a breathtaking moment near the beginning of Horse Money, what seems like a still gives way to motion. Shot in color, at once a directly provocative and deeply elliptical work, the movie is reminiscent of black-and-white genre cinema in its shadow play. Here, as in all of Costa’s features, the background sounds of other voices in other rooms are a constant, but this time they turn derisive as Ventura — right hand trembling, legs shuffling forward when he isn’t laid bare like a corpse — navigates a hero’s odyssey through isolating terrain. Vitalina Varela is introduced through a sunlit doorway, but soon is submerged in the dark as she whispers a monologue about her arrival in Portugal from Cape Verde, burning with fever in the wake of her unfaithful husband’s funeral.
In Nina Simone’s “In the Dark,” darkness focuses one’s attention on one’s heartbeat, promising thrills and kisses and new discoveries that fuse the sacred and profane. Cinematic blackness is equally vivid in Vitalina Varela. True to his name, Ventura ventures — at times even crawling — through a relentless maze of darkness as a priest attempting to console Vitalina, that is when he isn’t talking to himself. (Costa has cited Robert Bresson’s 1951 Diary of a Country Priest as an influence.) As is her right, it is Vitalina who dominates the movie, with her strong countenance and searching gaze. “You didn’t expect my visit,” she tells her late husband. The world teems outside his pitch-black apartment, now hers. Inside, she cooks for others, or, in a pivotal scene, sends them on their way when their talk of a mistress offends her. Most of all, Vitalina does time alone, her defiant loyalty matched by the director at her side.
Today it is impossible to ignore that loneliness and solitude are at the core of Costa’s films, and that his characters, struggling with government housing if they even have a place to live, are at risk more than ever within the global societal climate. There is Vanda Duarte of In Vanda’s Room, staring blindly into the abyss as her entire neighborhood literally crumbles around her. There is Ventura of Colossal Youth, examining new project apartments for a family that he lost long ago. And there is Vitalina Varela in the final, perhaps brightest, shot of the movie that bears her name, building a home, all on her own.
“You are completely alone in the movie theatre,” Costa has said. “It’s not a party. It can become something joyful.”
Johnny Ray Huston is a writer and collagist based in San Francisco, He has acted in Gary Fembot’s play Shelter in Place (2018) and movies Mondo Bottomless (2006) and Scream of the Mandrake (2015). He co-composed music, sang, and acted in Skye Thorstenson’s Tourist Trap (2010), which won a Golden Gate Award at the 2011 Festival.