Why this might not seem so easy
Vitalina Varela will be released in the UK on 6 March 2020
Throughout his career, Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa has moved almost exclusively along a single trajectory, creating a hermetically sealed universe inspired by the marginalised residents of Fontainhas, a now-demolished shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon.
As the neighbourhood disappeared, Costa retreated into the memories of his protagonists, increasingly focusing on immigrants from the Cape Verde islands. In telling their stories, Costa blends fact and fiction in a complex interplay of imagination, history, politics and cinema.
Though intensely visual, Costa’s films draw on oral storytelling, presenting wordy narratives which at once celebrate and problematise language, examining the (im)possibility of adequately describing the lived experience.
As befitting stories drawn from memory, Costa’s work has become increasingly mysterious, and his narratives (when he bothers with narrative at all) unfold with the discontinuity of dreams – latterly, they feel more like reveries, incantations or bewildering visions than conventional cinema, even as they draw upon Costa’s love of old Hollywood B-movies. This is cinema at its most hypnotic – in the sense that you can’t look away, but also in that it’s liable to send you into a somnolent trance.
Given the social status of his actors, who often play fictionalised versions of themselves, it would be easy for Costa to moralise, but he opts instead for a cool detachment, favouring an observational style drawing on solitude and stasis. Undeniably, this is cinema at its most complex and challenging – but also at its most rewarding.
The best place to start – Blood
Because Costa’s films develop out of each other in a linear fashion, it’s perhaps most appropriate to start at the beginning, with his startling debut, Blood (1989).
Arguably Costa’s most accessible film, Blood concerns the fate of two brothers after the death of their father, and the struggles they face against both their uncle and the criminals to whom their father owed money – but, this being a Costa film, the story never quite unfolds or concludes in a conventional fashion, proceeding instead in fits and starts (the American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested that Costa tells incomplete narratives about incomplete families, because Costa himself grew up without much in the way of family).
With its powerful chiaroscuro lighting, use of tableaux framing and its deep entrenchment in cinema history (it’s shot through with cinematic references), Blood serves as the perfect introduction to Costa’s later work.
What to watch next
Having completed his debut, Costa decided to escape Portugal for his second film, setting off to Cape Verde with the idea of remaking Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
Once he arrived, however, Costa fell in love with the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the landscape, and the people who dwelt within it. The script went swiftly out of the window, in favour of improvisation, and a new idea was born – one which mirrors the film’s production. Ostensibly about a Portuguese nurse escorting a comatose Cape Verdean immigrant back to his home island, the resulting film, Casa de lava (1994), effectively abandons its narrative halfway through to focus instead on the people and places of the island.
At the end of the shoot, the locals entrusted Costa with messages and gifts for their relatives in Lisbon, and this led him to Fontainhas, thus setting the course for the rest of his career.
For Ossos (1997), his first Fontainhas film, Costa focused on the slum’s disenfranchised white inhabitants, crafting a tale of two parents and their unwanted baby. Although the film was well received, Costa hadn’t yet succeeded in breaking the shackles of conventional filmmaking that had already begun weighing him down while making Casa de lava. One of Ossos’s actors, Vanda Duarte, decried the film’s lack of authenticity – the story had come from Costa, not from the community. She invited Costa to spend time with her in Fontainhas, and her offer led to In Vanda’s Room (2000), in which Costa radically rethought his aesthetic approach.
Vanda, like most of those who appear in the film, was a heroin addict, and Costa began filming her daily life with a small digital camera. Initially unsure how he would use the footage (he thought it might be an essay or documentary), Costa continued shooting for two years, during which time Fontainhas was demolished. Slowly the final work emerged, not quite fiction, and not quite factual. Despite the title, the film presents a portrait of the neighbourhood as much as it does Vanda, and the material grew organically from the stories and memories of those featured – an approach Costa would continue to take with his future work.
While making In Vanda’s Room, Costa met Ventura, a towering presence who was one of the first to arrive from Cape Verde, and who had helped lay the foundations of Fontainhas. A friendship was born, and Ventura became the central presence in two features, Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014), as well as appearing in four shorts: Tarrafal (2007), The Rabbit Hunters (2007), O nosso homem (2010) and Sweet Exorcism (2012).
With Fontainhas demolished, and its inhabitants mostly rehoused in soulless modern apartments, Costa delved deeper into the history and memory of the immigrant experience, conjuring up astonishing, ghostly visions where past and present coalesce. With images that recall the shadowy paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, these films cemented the style and themes which Costa utilised to perfection in his new film, Vitalina Varela (2019), whose eponymous actress Costa met while making Horse Money, in which she also features.
Where not to start
Outside Costa’s ongoing Fontainhas chronicles are two non-fiction pieces concerned with the art of creation: Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), which centres on materialist filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, and Ne change rien (2009), focusing on French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar.
Though seemingly side-projects that take Costa away from his usual concerns, the films make interesting companion pieces, especially the former, which was made between the filming and editing of In Vanda’s Room.
Given that Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is largely confined to the editing room where Huillet and Straub are working on the postproduction of Sicilia! (1999), it’s fun to speculate on how this experience fed into Costa’s film. For his part, Costa has said that he was influenced not so much by the way Huillet and Straub conducted their actual editing, but by the time he spent with them as people – something that seems entirely fitting for a filmmaker whose work draws on the personal history and oral stories of the people he features on screen.