Shining (Dim) Light in Dark Corners


With Colossal Youth, Anthology indulges local screenheads with a full Pedro Costa retrospective—an excellent opportunity to see the Portuguese director’s vision emerge over time, from his more traditionally cinephiliac debut drama The Blood (1989) to his documentary on the auteurs of austerity, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), which doubles as a casebook of conceptual clues to Costa’s own enigmatic esthetics. Costa’s earliest films already contain many of his trademarks: excruciatingly careful composition with a penchant for murky liquid shadows; nonprofessional actors captured in the spirit of portraiture; occasional bon-bons of pop-music reverie. The signature Costa shot is a weakly illuminated face floating in a pool of blackness, barely discernible. It’s a shame that his images are interrupted by bright subtitles: You want their ghostly presence to fill the theater.

Shot in an inky black-and-white, The Blood revolves around a loose triangle of two brothers and a young schoolteacher entangled in a scenario involving organized crime, a vindictive uncle, and the mysterious death of the boys’ father. Atypically bright for a Costa film, Down to Earth (1994) follows a Portuguese nurse to the former colony of Cape Verde, which despite its name is portrayed as a brutal landscape of volcanic rock and little green. Both films present oblique narratives that might eventually resolve (or not), with key turning points occurring off-screen (or, rather, invisibly, between shots). But unlike the more overtly disjunctive baffles of David Lynch, Costa lulls the viewer down snaking storylines with a deceptive naturalism; only gradually do you realize just how lost you’ve become.

Down to Earth‘s setting is far from Edenic—with a loose dog wandering through a shabby hospital and trenchant squabbles between villagers—but it might as well be paradise compared to Fontainhas, the miserable Lisbon slum of Bones (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000), a decrepit home-in-exile for underclass Cape Verdean immigrants and likewise the setting of Colossal Youth. (The three Fontainhas pictures are frequently cited as a informal trilogy, though Down to Earth undoubtedly serves as preface.) Both Bones and Vanda mix fiction with reality, but the latter creeps just a bit further into recognizable documentary: Bones focuses on the depressed lives of two house cleaners, while Vanda spends time in the actual home of Bones actress Vanda Duarte as she shoots up with her circle of heroin-addicted compatriots. Paradoxically beautiful visions of suffering—without redemption or catharsis—unfold before Costa’s motionless camera; Vanda, especially, is relentlessly painful to witness.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? enters a more upbeat cloister: The video doc takes place entirely in a dimly let editing suite, where Straub and Huillet argue at the Steenbeck over cutting their 1998 film Sicilia! (also playing at Anthology’s retro). Their squabbles take on a philosophical tone: “Genius is nothing more than a great deal of patience,” Straub says. A similar quality will be needed to take in Costa’s rich but unforgiving work.