Sunday, August 5, 2007

Colossal Youth

The world of Colossal Youth: self-contained, claustrophobic, dimly lit, a world composed in dark grays and blacks. Set in the Fontainhas slums outside of Lisbon, home to a large population of the city's Cape Verdean immigrants, Pedro Costa's film is a series of fixed tableaus centered around Ventura, a gangly man of seventy-five whose daily routine comprises a series of visits to his "children", both biological and spiritual, and the occasional trip to Lisbon, a world of lush greenery painted in stark contrast to the dark interiority of Fontainhas.

Reportedly edited from over 320 hours of footage, Costa's picture takes its shape from the lives of the people he met during the shooting of two earlier films in the same district and, rather than forcing his non-actors to conform to a pre-arranged narrative, he shapes his work around their lived experience. Ventura (the actor and character share the name) is more a passive observer than active participant in this world. Content to let others speak, he seems to come alive only during his endless recitations of a proposed letter to a lover in Cape Verde that he repeats in a series of variations throughout the film. This recitation, always accomplished with an air of sadness, provides a thematic continuity to a film held together more by visual conception than narrative.

Of all the "children" he visits, Vanda (Vanda Duarte), a recovering junkie, provides the work with its most effusive personage. In an environment dominated by passive withdrawal, her endless flow of words, punctuated by a chronic hacking cough, marks Costa's film with a sense of vibrancy lacking in the rest of its diegetic world. In a scene that can be taken as the film's centerpiece, Vanda narrates the difficult birth of her young daughter, a narration that takes on a certain epic quality through its sheer number of convolutions. Costa establishes a tableau with Ventura, Vanda and her daughter arranged on a white bed. (The scenes in Vanda's apartment favor a rather brightly lit mise-en-scène with whites replacing the film's customary grays and blacks, a color scheme that surely tells us something about that character's vitality.) Perennially tired, Ventura lies down, while Vanda sits on the bed's edge, transfixed by her own narration. Costa's technique throughout the film is to carefully arrange a scene, fix his camera and let it run its course without directorial interruption. Here, in one of the film's longest takes, Vanda's narration of her obstetric difficulties results in a strangely mesmerizing sequence that creates a hypnotic pull from the barest of materials, a carefully arranged three-shot and a gruff but vital voice.

One of the unfortunate features of nearly every film that deals with slum life is a tendency to either focus too eagerly on the violent aspects of the characters' lifestyles or to treat them with an off-putting condescension, but Colossal Youth clearly has other concerns. The minimal violence that transpires in this world takes place entirely off screen. And Costa's aesthetic conception, variously described as minimalist or formalist, provides his characters with an unexpected dignity through its refusal to draw judgments (either positive or negative) on their actions. Clearly such an approach cannot be described as objective, especially given the care that Costa takes with visual composition (his mastery is especially apparent in his lighting schemes), but it provides full opportunity for his actors to fill the screen with their uncompromised presence and escape any aesthetic contrivance that would prejudice the audience in their reactions to this presence.

The world of Fontainhas is so tightly constrained, most of all by the darkness of Costa's visual conception (with the exception of the scenes in Vanda's apartment), that when he cuts away from this world it registers as a shock. The lush greenery that dominates the several scenes in Lisbon provides an obvious contrast (and one shot in particular, a long pan - one of only three in the film - across a vast expanse of green to reveal two characters rowing a boat down a canal, provides one of the film's most unexpected visual pleasures), but so do the scenes shot in the bright, antiseptic whiteness of the housing project where Ventura moves as part of a government plan of relocation and urban renewal. Unlike the brightness of Lisbon, however, this illuminated setting is aesthetically unredeeming. If the film is above all about the aesthetics of our perception of the world (as Nathan Lee wrote, "the movie is as much about looking at people and buildings in a certain way as it is about any specific individual or address"), then we must understand the different levels of meaning attached to the film's various settings through the corresponding changes in the film's visual conception. Regarded in this light, the film is about the movement from one visual aesthetic (the cracked grays of the hovels, which are nonetheless captured in shots of great beauty) to another (the drab homogeneity of the subsidized housing). Only the brief moments of escape to the city provide a measure of visual, as well as spiritual, relief, both for the audience and for the burdened inhabitants of Costa's rigid and uncompromising world.

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