segunda-feira, 19 de maio de 2008

Director’s Quest for Truth Among the Downtrodden


Published: July 29, 2007

FOR someone whose films have until recently gone largely unseen, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa has a pretty vociferous fan club. His admirers include the French director Jacques Rivette (who called him “genuinely great”) and the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall (who claimed that Mr. Costa’s films improve on Robert Bresson’s). He has been feted at festivals and museums from Vienna to Mexico City to Tokyo. His work has been extensively discussed in Cahiers du Cinéma, Artforum and Film Comment. Last fall Cinema Scope magazine produced promotional — or, more to the point, polemical— T-shirts, identical to the “Vote for Pedro” T’s from “Napoleon Dynamite” except for an additional phrase: “Pedro Costa, that is.”

But Mr. Costa, 48, is not uniformly loved by world-cinema tastemakers. The press screening for “Colossal Youth” at the Cannes Film Festival last year was punctuated by a steady stream of departing critics. Detractors call his films slow and obdurate. Their rigor and stringency, along with the ferocious rhetoric often deployed by his champions, have given him the forbidding air of a high-art Spartan.

That reputation does the work a disservice. Few movies are as concretely rooted in physical reality or as profoundly attentive to their social context as Mr. Costa’s. In recent years he has shot almost exclusively in the slums of Lisbon, working closely with the downtrodden inhabitants. Staking out a radical middle between documentary and fiction, he has invented a heroic and quite literal form of Arte Povera, a monumental cinema of humble means. (A retrospective of his films, which has been touring North America, starts Friday at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan and runs through Aug. 12.)

Speaking by telephone from Lisbon, Mr. Costa called his methods a throwback to, of all things, old Hollywood. “It’s like a studio system,” he said. “We go to work every day. We have our economic structure — everyone gets paid the same — and we have our stars.”

Mr. Costa’s first feature, “O Sangue” (“The Blood,” 1989), was not a reliable indicator of things to come. A black-and-white reverie of family disintegration, it is, in the best sense, a young man’s film, drunk on romantic doom and movie love — a rhapsodic style Mr. Costa now regards as “camouflage.”

Frustrated with the rightward drift in Portuguese politics and the scarcity of financing, he ventured abroad — to the West African islands of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony — and made “Casa de Lava” (Down to Earth,” 1994). The story of a nurse who accompanies a comatose laborer home to Cape Verde, it changed the course of his career.

The Cape Verdeans he met sent him back to Lisbon with gifts for relatives who had emigrated there. The delivery mission led him to the shantytown of Fontainhas, where many Cape Verdeans had settled. He decided to set a film in the neighborhood, using residents as actors.

The result, “Ossos” (“Bones,” 1997), centered on the newborn infant of two hapless teenagers, is a parable of economic and spiritual desperation as oblique and concentrated as anything by Bresson. Mr. Costa was dissatisfied with the shoot, not least for having invaded a residential neighborhood with the unwieldy machinery of film production.

“We would be shooting late at night and shining lights into people’s houses,” he said. “I realized there’s something wrong with the way movies are made today.”

Mr. Costa set out to address not merely logistical headaches but also the responsibility that comes with picking up a camera. The act of filmmaking is premised on a discrepancy of power. As Mr. Costa put it, “The balance is off between those behind and in front of the camera.” His next film, “In Vanda’s Room” (2000), went a long way toward redressing the inequality.

Encouraged by Vanda Duarte, an actress in “Ossos,” he continued to film in Fontainhas, which was being demolished. This time he did so with a small video camera, often by himself. He grew close to his subjects and shot for almost two years. From 140 hours of footage he shaped a three-hour film.

A series of shadowy domestic tableaus (the camera never moves, and Mr. Costa used only available light), “In Vanda’s Room” is a stark, intimate portrait of a community whose world is literally falling apart. (Bulldozers are continuously heard on the soundtrack.) It feels at times like a documentary but is actually the result of long conversations and multiple takes. Ms. Duarte and her friends, who sit around, talk, prepare heroin fixes, smoke and shoot up, are not documentary subjects so much as actors playing themselves.

Mr. Costa handled the copious drug use matter-of-factly. “I was never moralistic,” he said. “But I was hoping to get them to see that drugs are a punishment imposed on them by external forces.”

While shooting “In Vanda’s Room” he recognized that he didn’t want to return to traditional filmmaking. “Going to work on the bus I felt exactly like I should for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s almost not a film at that point. It’s a job you do, a job you like. We could be making chairs or shoes. It just happens to be images and sounds.”

Mr. Costa’s films assert that there are more important things than art, even as they insist that beauty is everywhere to be found. “Art should be more than it is and a lot less than it is,” he said, voicing the implicit manifesto of his films. “Brecht said he made jewels for the poor. He talked about the epic quality of the day-to-day life of common people. That’s something I pursue. I really want them to be heroes.”

He left Fontainhas to make “Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?” (2001), a documentary on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the avant-garde filmmakers he had long admired. (Mr. Costa speaks passionately of his “idols” who range from the Hollywood titan John Ford to the punk-rock rabble-rouser John Lydon.)

“Colossal Youth,” which came next, stemmed from an impulse to document the relocation of the Fontainhas residents. Ms. Duarte, now on methadone though still possessed of her signature hacking cough, appears in the film, but the focus is on Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean whose wife has left him. Mr. Costa again amassed hundreds of hours of footage, but he moves further from documentary to include surreal and mythic touches. Ventura wanders between the old ghetto, where a few stragglers remain, and the new housing project. He refers to the men and women he meets as his children and repeatedly recites a love letter (adapted from the poet Robert Desnos) to his absent wife.

In a sense “Colossal Youth” is a film about walls. The contrast between the worn interiors of Fontainhas, walls on which entire lives are inscribed, and the whitewashed surfaces of the anonymous new apartments is almost shocking.

There is a third space the movie briefly occupies — the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon — and to hear Mr. Costa describe the genesis of a scene he shot there, the walls are again significant. He was driving with Ventura one day when they passed the Gulbenkian. “Ventura told me he worked on the construction years ago but had never been to the museum,” Mr. Costa said, so they pulled over. Inside he noticed that Ventura was drawn less to the art than to his own handiwork: the walls. “He’s moved that his walls have Rubens and Rembrandts,” he said. “But he kept looking behind the paintings.”