The funny thing about minimalism is its endless variety: Like “realism,” the term is so abstract and subjective as to be practically meaningless. We can agree that a Brice Marden monochrome appears minimalist next to a still life by Chardin. But when a film as rich in character, feeling, and visual interest as Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth is described as “minimalist,” you have to ask: Compared to what—Transformers?
One way into Colossal Youth, a difficult movie by any measure, is to understand what motivates the minimalist. Within the spectrum of minimalist art, we might define two general categories. There is the Reductive Minimalist, an artist whose point of departure is a “fuller,” more traditional kind of art—the academic painting, the naturalistic novel, the conventional narrative film. Through a process of elimination, simplification, and emphasis on fundamental structure, the Reductive Minimalist is after something quieter, firmer, more honest or resonant. Constantin Brancusi and Robert Bresson belong to this tribe.
The second type of minimalist is much less common and tends to piss people off. This is the Reluctant Minimalist, an artist whose point of departure is absolute nothing: the blank screen with no image projected upon it, the length of film stock as yet unexposed, the raw canvas, the empty page. The question is not what to pare away, but why anything should be added in the first place. The Warhol who filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours is the Reluctant Minimalist par excellence—Empire doesn’t reduce some other form of cinema; it expends the least possible effort to illuminate something from the void. Robert Ryman and Samuel Beckett belong to this family of minimalist. And so does Pedro Costa.
Shot in the slums of Lisbon on gloomy digital video, Colossal Youth opens on the charcoal façade of a rundown apartment building illuminated by some unspecified silvery light source. A man throws junk out a window: a chair, a door, some kind of appliance. It’s a vaguely ominous, weirdly enraptured tableau, with an uncanny air of the synthetic, as if it were a meticulously distressed miniature, or a masterpiece of shabby-chic CGI. The second shot lodges itself in a cramped, gloomy corridor where a woman stands clutching a small knife and staring out the upper-left corner of the frame. She relates a tension-fraught anecdote about swimming, her declamatory speech and calculated body language imparting a certain formal self-consciousness to the scene without diminishing the charge of her presence. The monologue ends as she recedes backward into the dark.
The following three hours of Colossal Youth are electrified by this raw existential intensity, even as the film refrains from dramatizing in the slightest; a considerable amount of attention is given to people sitting on beds saying very little, or staring into space saying even less. So, uh, what it is at all “about”?
On a very basic level, there’s no mystery: Colossal Youth is about a filmmaker committed to marginal aesthetics and marginalized communities, who takes a video camera into the poorest of neighborhoods and tries to say something valid about what he finds there. For that, he requires a language—and the jacked-up ghetto chic of a movie like City of God won’t do. Rather than impose actors on the scene, Costa involves the people who already live there. Instead of training them to perform a story, he locates a skeletal narrative from a rehearsal process based on their personal stories.
And so he finds a character—an elderly man named Ventura—and a scenario to place him in. Unemployed and recently relocated to a new neighborhood, Ventura passes the movie meeting various neighbors whom he calls his “children.” He will sit with them, and talk, and move on to someplace else. That’s pretty much it.
Writing in Film Comment, critic Kent Jones nails the cumulative effect of its rapt, obstinate, slab-like images as a “truly incantatory experience . . . simultaneously decrepit and monumental.” The key word there is “experience”: Colossal Youth is an immersion—the movie as a state of mind.
Colossal Youth puts avant-garde formalism in the service of ethnographic documentary—or is it vice versa? The movie is as much about looking at people and buildings in a certain way as it is about any specific individual or address. Visually rapturous in its abject way, the quality of that perception more than satisfies my minimum requirement of a movie.