I suppose before going into Costa's sin I ought to confess my own, which is that I walked out of the first Cannes press screening of Colossal Youth back in 2006, about forty-five minutes in. I admit I was a bit suspicious of it, not quite sure if the film, which was following the wanderings of a clearly "authentic" displaced person named Ventura, was going to turn out to be one of those smirky, "Hey, look at me, I'm using real dispossessed people to articulate my 'vision,' and doesn't that make you uncomfortable, you bourgeois twat? Boo-yah, in your FACE!" exercises that reached a kind of apotheosis with Ulrich Seidl's loathesome Import/Export, which was to screen at Cannes the next year, and which I stubbornly sat through the entirety of for the sole purpose of being able to fully own my contempt for it. There was a quality to it that suggested it would be something rather different than that...but whatever it was, at that particular moment in time, I wasn't in the mood for it (it was early evening, I was hungry, and the picture was going to go on for about another two hours), and I bolted. That I did so at pretty much the same time as another more prominent critic did actually filled me with an ambivalence that contained more than a dollop of shame.
Over the next year I learned a lot more about the Portuguese filmmaker, and was able to catch up with the work at an August 2007 retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. Colossal Youth, as it happens, was the final part of a trilogy of films Costa began making in the late 1990s, after making a picture called Casa de Lava on the island of Cape Verde. It was from the residents of that island that Costa learned of Fontinhas, a poor area outside of Lisbon proper, where many of the residents of the island wound up after emigrating to Lisbon in the hopes of changing their lives. Costa was already a filmmaker of remarkable sensitivity and sensibility when he began shooting Ossos in Fontinhas, but working there would wind up transforming him profoundly.
I discuss some of this in my review of the extraordinary Second Run DVD of Costa's 1989 debut feature O Sangue, which appeared as a Foreign Region DVD Report at The Auteurs' Notebook in autumn of last year. In that piece, I refer to what I'll call Costa's "sin" here. The new Criterion release of Costa's trilogy, an extraordinary box set entitled "Letters From Fontinhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa" gives one the opportunity to examine it more closely, and to appreciate the ways in which Costa adapted his approach to his subject and subjects.
Like the subsequent In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, the cast of Ossos is made up largely of real Fontinhas residents, but unlike the subsequent films, the non-actors are playing roles and enacting a story concocted by Costa. None of this is particularly bothersome or problematic. Late in the film there's a scene in which the character Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), an outsider, enters the labyrinth of Fontinhas to visit Tina (Maria Lipkina). Who is listening, on a boom box, to a live recording of the British punk group Wire, playing its song "Lowdown" (chorus: "Drowning in the big swim/rising to the SUR-FACE!"). The boom box is switched off; the characters commune; the father of Tina's child enters the frame; words are exchanged; and the music begins again. Only this time the "Lowdown" we hear is the studio version from the seminal album Pink Flag.
The problem here isn't that the music is inapt; tonally, it "works" with the scene. The verisimilitude issue is a little more pertinent; the likelihood that in the late 1990s a young woman living in a Lisbon slum is going to be listening to the 1977 work of a British band is, well, iffy. But not entirely out of the realm of the probable. That the viewer hears two different versions of the song, though, starts to smack of a certain...connoisseurship. (And indeed, Costa has spoken of his deep admiration for the group, and its influence on his aesthetic.) And here we get to the nub of Costa's error. Whether or not the music "works," it still represents a sort of directorial imposition. There's a falseness to it that's essential, that goes beyond mere questions of cinematic verisimilitude.
In an video interview with the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin that makes up just one of the voluminous extras in the extraordinary Criterion set, Costa recalled being upbraided by one of Ossos' cast members, Vanda Duarte, who told him "You have to stop the faking." She wasn't referring to the use of music, necessarily (Costa doesn't mention a specific instance of faking that Duarte objected to), but Costa got the message. Hence, the straits of In Vanda's Room, an epic film that largely takes place in the title dwelling, where Duarte and her sister Zita consume drugs and gossip as their neighborhood is torn down around them. This non-fiction fiction (the production process of the digitally-shot picture was incredibly painstaking, exacting, and again, this is covered in the box's supplements) seems to eschew the influence of a sensibility "outside" of it, at least until the Gyorgy Kurtag music that plays over the end credits. (In an essay in the box's booklet, Thom Andersen cites the perhaps "pseudodiegetic sound" of a song by French chanteuse and one time yé-yé girl Nicoletta that opens the film, which to these ears sounded like something that could have been coming from some European manifestation of oldies radio.)
By the time he made Colossal Youth, Costa had become so familiar with Fontinhas—which, as it happens, was being pretty much wiped out as he was making his films—that he could comfortably re-integrate his sensibility into that film. Hence, then, the picture's English-language title (a nod to another seminal recording the 1980 record by the Welsh group Young Marble Giants) and lead "actor" Ventura's obsessive, incantory recitation/adaptation of a letter/poem by surrealist and French Resistance martyr Robert Desnos. Ventura's poignant, strangely magisterial presence is so potent that he can be seen as the picture's definitive co-auteur. It is rather ironic that Fontinhas comes down just as Costa becomes a filmmaker whose soul has finally melded with the place.