HTF DVD REVIEW: Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa

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    Apr 24, 2006
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    Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa

    Ossos/In Vanda’s Room/Colossal Youth
    Directed by Pedro Costa

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1997/2000/20006
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.66:1 anamorphic      
    Running Time: 97/171/156 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo Portuguese
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $ 79.95

    Release Date: March 30, 2010
    Review Date: March 15, 2010
    The Films
    The Fontainhas section of Lisbon was one of the city’s most notorious slum ghettos, and the three films that make up this box set either take place there or make reference to its existence. These art films also have in common a minimalist perspective on storytelling and character study: there’s very little of either. Director Pedro Costa is forging a kind of docudrama sparseness to filmmaking that will leave no one undecided on its merits or limitations. You’ll either love these films or find them much ado about nothing.
    Ossos – 3/5
    Tina (Maria Lipkina) and her lover (Nuno Vaz) have a child but have almost no means of supporting it. After Tina attempts to take her life and the life of the baby, the boy friend steals the child and initially tries to use it as a prop in his street begging. When that doesn’t bring forth the hoped-for monetary windfall, he begins scoping out people who can buy the baby from him. Tina, meanwhile, sick over the theft of the child, relies on her close friend Clotilde (Vanda Duarte) to see her through another suicide attempt and to find her some work as a cleaning lady realizing that the likelihood of getting the baby back is remote indeed.
    Costa sets out from the start making his technique obvious: lots of close-ups of faces lost in thought, minimal dialogue throughout, and scenes often shot through open windows, doorways, or around corners and often in subdued lighting. The ominous sense of this crowded, dangerous ghetto is palpable, and that’s the film’s strongest attribute. The storytelling, however, is weak and character execution even worse. You’ll finish this film not knowing anything more about these characters than you do within the first ten minutes. It’s a frustrating experience not getting to burrow beneath those pensive brows and into those troubled minds, but one’s patience is only tested in this film for a little over ninety minutes. The other two films prove far more daunting with their extended running times.
    In Vanda’s Room – 2/5
    There is no story. As a slice of life in the Fontainhas barrio of Lisbon, we’re introduced to a group of dead end drug addicts, the central one being Vanda Duarte, a vegetable vendor who spends most of her time in her bedroom, taking drugs and conversing rather nonsensically with her sister Zita. As insular as Vanda's world is, outside her Lisbon apartment, the Fountainhas District where she lives is slowly being demolished, something that becomes an immediate concern to a group of male heroin addicts who shoot up together in a separate hovel and must look for living quarters elsewhere.
    Watching the film is a test of patience since once again we’re denied even rudimentary character development along with the plotless storytelling. We see alternating scenes of the women getting high and then the men getting high. All have that pesky paranoia drug addicts develop about someone bothering their stashes or their drug paraphernalia. Costa shot the film with a digital camera, so it’s even more claustrophobic and oppressive than Ossos. If these people with their ill health and dead eyes were the least bit interesting, one might not mind spending almost three hours of his life with them, but they generate so little interest and display no personalities that are appealing enough the generate any kind of loyal viewership.
    Colossal Youth – 3.5/5
    Ventura, a Cape Verdean laborer living in the outskirts of Lisbon, is suddenly abandoned by his wife Clotilde when she learns they must abandon their ghetto home and move into a low cost public housing project. Ventura feels lost between the dilapidated old barrio where he spent the last three decades and his new lodgings in a recently-built, freshly painted public apartment. All the poor young souls he meets in his neighborhood seem to him to be his children, and he’s eager for them to move in with him, so much so that he demands from the public official a multi-bedroom apartment rather than the single bedroom unit he’s entitled to.
    Finally director Costa presents us with a character we can come to care about: a kindly, generous father-figure for a series of struggling young people (some of whom we’ve met in previous films in this set). The character development still isn’t of sterling quality; we still have far more questions than answers about this loving old gentleman, but it’s a pleasure to see the time spent in this film on somewhat more upbeat pursuits rather than the debilitating, depressive characters in the previous two films (with no glimmer of hope or heart possible). Costa’s still over indulgent in his filmmaking, though, prolonging the film unnecessarily with overlong takes and scenes that don’t accomplish anything that are stuck in for no good reason. He also extends moments past the breaking point (showing two complete card games; reciting a letter composed for one of his illiterate “children” four or five times) dragging out the film’s running time to unsatisfying lengths. This conclusion to the three film series is not without its involving moments, but Costa’s motifs are certainly not for anyone with a short attention span, and Ventura’s encounter with what is meant to be a ghost near the film’s conclusion is very clumsily handled by the director.
    Video Quality
    Ossos – 4.5/5
    The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this very solid transfer that’s anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Sharpness is excellent for all but a couple of shots, and color rendition is very accurate with quite believable flesh tones. The film is for the most part shot in street shadows so a good black level is important, and this transfer has excellent black levels. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 19 chapters.
    In Vanda’s Room – 3.5/5
    The film is framed for video at 1.33:1, and its sharpness and color density are not unappealing. As much of the film is shot in low light, there are problems with color fluctuations in the shadows, and there are some horrific aliasing problems in a striped dress that Vanda’s mother wears in an early scene. Otherwise, however, the picture is solid. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the movie has been divided into 39 chapters.
    Colossal Youth – 3.5/5
    Filmed with a digital camera and converted to 35mm, the film has been framed here at 1.33:1, and while sharpness is good, the use of only natural light plunges many scenes into almost complete darkness which overpowers the images completely in black crush. Yes, black levels are pitch black, but that’s often as much a problem as it is a plus. Color can be appealing and natural looking. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 30 chapters.
    Audio Quality
    Ossos – 4/5
    The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is wonderfully recorded and presented here with some immersive street sounds, and the blaring music of the barrio is at almost distortion-worthy levels of volume. There is very little dialogue, but what’s there is presented clearly.
    In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth – 3.5/5
    The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio mix for each film has rather blaring music from the barrio which sometimes drowns out dialogue (of course, that’s not a problem with English-speaking viewers reading subtitles) and reaches levels of near-distortion in its volume. Still, the mixes have been well rendered (there was much post-dubbing according to the commentary track with In Vanda’s Room) and are better than one might think for such low budget enterprises.
     Special Features
    All film discs and supplemental disc – 5/5
    A 2009 conversation between directors Pedro Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin records the two filmmakers speaking in English and discussing Costa’s ideas for a new film methodology. They talk about where his ideas for the Fontainhas trilogy came from and his motivations for working with a small crew and in hostile environments. This anamorphic widescreen feature lasts 33 minutes.
    Critic Joào Bénard da Costa speaks with great praise and affection about the film in this 2004 video interview than runs 9 ¼ minutes and is in 4:3.
    Cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel talks for 8 minutes about the challenges of shooting in such confined spaces and with very little light in the 2004 interview. It’s in 4:3.
    Artist Jeff Wall uses films clips from the movie to deliver a valedictory video critique of the film in a 13-minute anamorphic featurette.
    Still photographer Mariana Viegas has a 15-photo step through picture gallery showing the actors in the movie and the director working behind-the-scenes.
    In Vanda’s Room
    The audio commentary is by director Pedro Costa who speaks with and discusses the film with director Jean-Pierre Gorin in English. Costa does manage to speak for the entire length of the film though he tends to trundle a bit as the film grinds on, and by the end, he talks so haltingly that it’s hard to discern some of what he’s saying.
    A stills gallery includes thirteen black and white photographs taken by photographer Richard Dumas, all behind the scenes portraits of the director, his female stars, and some other residents of the barrio who don’t actually appear in the movie.
    The film’s theatrical trailer was prepared for a Far East release. It runs for 2 minutes and is in nonanamorphic letterbox.
    Colossal Youth
    Director Pedro Costa and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin engage in another discussion, this time about Colossal Youth. Costa discusses his motivations for making the film and his luck in finding his leading character (who’s much younger than the version of himself he plays on the screen). It’s a somewhat rambling talk, most of it by Costa, that goes on for 23 minutes in anamorphic widescreen. It was recorded in 2009.
    The film’s theatrical trailer, again prepared for a Far East release, runs for 2 minutes in nonanamorphic letterbox.

    Supplemental disc
    “On Colossal Youth”is a selected sequence audio commentary on Colossal Youth by French film critics Cyril Neyrat and Jacques Rancière. Five segments from the film are discussed with swooning admiration by the two critics (who speak English for the commentary). Mr. Rancière has the unfortunate habit of using the phrase “you know” about three or four times per sentence, and as this commentary lasts for 38 ½ minutes, it gets to be a trifle redundant.
    “All Blossoms Again” is a 2006 documentary on filmmaker Pedro Costa by Aurélien Gerbault. Filmed during the making of Colossal Youth, the feature focuses on the director’s close relationship with the Fontainhas district in Lisbon and recounts his experiences in making his current film and the two previous ones in the trilogy (with a generous selection of film clips from those movies). In anamorphic widescreen, this documentary runs for 80 ¾ minutes.
    “Tarrafal” is a 2007 short film by director Pedro Costa featuring some of the actors from Colossal Youth discussing mortality and death. Running 17 ¾ minutes, it’s presented in 4:3.
    “The Rabbit Hunters” is a second 2007 short film by Pedro Costa, interesting in that it lifts some footage featuring Ventura from Colossal Youth (he plays that same slapping card game again) but changes its thematic emphasis on the alienation of friends and family. It runs for 23 ¼ minutes in 4:3.
    “Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female” is comprised of outtakes from In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth featuring exterior and interior footage placed side by side and running for 34 ¾ minutes. The intent was for this footage to be used in museum exhibits so that viewers could pick and choose from the outtakes and cut together their own short film.
    The enclosed 45-page booklet contains cast and crew lists for all three films, a generous selection of stills from the movies in black and white and color, and six celebratory essays on the director and the three films that comprise the trilogy in this box set. The authors are Cyril Neyrat, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Luc Sante, Thom Andersen, Mark Peranson, and Bernard Eisenschitz.
    In Conclusion
    3/5 (not an average)
    The films by Pedro Costa contained in this Letters from Fontainhas box set are a mixed bag indeed. They take a great deal of patience to sit though with their director’s lumbering technique and non audience-friendly habits of shot elongation and unidentifiable characters lacking a solid story. Adventurous moviegoers may want to give the set a rental just to see if the director’s style is something they can enjoy.
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC

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