Arts & Events

Pedro Costa's Fontainhas

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday April 15, 2010 - 08:17:00 AM

Pedro Costa's Ossos marked a turning point in the his career, the moment when the Portuguese director found his subject matter if not his voice. 

In the impoverished Fontainhas district of Lisbon, Costa found a captivating world, an abandoned neighborhood full of nearly forgotten people leading lives of deprivation and desperation. With its narrow passageways, jagged concrete walls and piles of rubble and debris, it was a grim but highly cinematic environment. 

Costa sought a spare, minimalist approach and employed nonprofessional actors, actual residents of Fontainhas, in an elliptical tale of desperate youth. A young, suicidal mother turns her newborn child over to its highly untrustworthy father. Not only is he incapable of caring for it, he is willing to sell it. Costa keeps his camera quiet and watchful, often still, and insists that his actors remain just as quiet. The approach results in moments of poignancy, its spare but strong imagery of enigmatic faces at times packing a solid emotional punch. But though this fiercely enforced structure has the capacity for affecting, even haunting scenes, it teeters on the brink of monotony, its rigid rules and design verging on a caricature of minimalist arthouse cinema.  

Costa had his own problems with the production. He felt that the trappings of standard moviemaking techniques were inappropriate for the Fontainhas district, and that his team of cameramen, crew and assistants overwhelmed the neighborhood and the film itself. He had run up against the limits film as an industry and found that its artifice obstructed his art. So Costa self-corrected, and for his next two Fontainhas films, In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, he stripped the operation down to the bone — just Costa, his camera and his actors. He unleashed the actors as well; this time they not only spoke in complete sentences, but he allowed them — real-life residents of Fontainhas — to show him how life was lived in their world.  

In these films, his camera is less obtrusive, the performances less mannered, producing a more engaging and complete portrait of the since-leveled slum. The result is a unique cinematic vision that is spare and unsparing, that tempers its minimalism with naturalism, its verité with poetry. 


Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa 

Ossos, (1997), 97 minutes. 

In Vanda's Room (2000), 171 minutes. 

Colossal Youth (2006), 156 minutes. 

Plus 200 minutes of supplemental materials, including interviews with Costa, commentaries by Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin, documentaries and short films. $79.95.