Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa
by Jonathan Rosenbaum, November 15, 2007 (read the full article at Chicago Reader)
Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa twists Hollywood inspiration in his tableaux of dispossession and poverty.
“At the same time, quietly telling whoever will listen that cinema is exactly the opposite of what 99% of the film world thinks, and he is getting more radical every day.” (Quintín on Costa cited by JR)
"The cinema of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw essences—souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It’s not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn’t stories—though untold or partially told stories pervade all six of Costa’s features. It’s fully realized moments, secular epiphanies. (...)
Despite his rigor and his attachment to avant-garde filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (...) many of Costa’s cinematic reference points are Hollywood auteurs. You could even say that he’s been consciously remaking some of the movies of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, and Tourneur on his own terms—in Portuguese slums, most recently in digital video, with nonprofessional actors, some of them exiles from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde or junkies. Though this makes the films sound crude, the dialogue is scripted, the scenes are rehearsed and shot several times, and visual beauty is a constant. (...)
Costa’s films have the reputation of being difficult, but I would argue that three of them are relatively accessible. (...)
But teasing out the narrative in the other three features—all shot in Lisbon slums and hovels, many being audibly and visibly razed—is no easy matter. And getting used to their idiosyncrasies is a challenge because, as Quintín suggests, you have to accept Costa’s terms, which means rethinking the way you watch movies. (...) Bones was shot on film with a conventional crew and has a conventional running time (94 minutes); the actors, though mostly nonprofessionals, play characters with different names. But Costa himself shot the latter two on DV over several years, using crews of just two or three people. They’re both about three hours long, the camera never moves, and the performers, all nonprofessionals, play themselves. The most common complaint about Costa is that he aestheticizes poverty. (...) None of Costa’s estheticizing makes abject poverty look attractive, and much of it confounds the very notion that neorealism opens a door onto the world."
“Fiction is always a door that we want to open or not—it’s not a script. We’ve got to learn that a door is for coming and going. I believe that today, in the cinema, when we open a door, it’s always quite false, because it says to the spectator: ‘Enter this film and you’re going to be fine, you’re going to have a good time,’ and finally what you see in this genre of film is nothing other than yourself, a projection of yourself.”
A closed door that leaves us guessing (Published at Rouge) Pedro Costa's Tokyo conference, cited by JR.
"Costa even discourages identification by refusing to shoot reverse angles, Hollywood’s conventional way of drawing us into the characters’ space. But it’s hard to be indifferent toward these characters and what they do (or don’t do). Costa combines Straub and Huillet’s fanatical belief in capturing material reality with a more disembodied search for spiritual essence found in some chamber works by Tourneur and Dreyer. What emerges from this apparent contradiction is a passageway designed for coming and going, not a simple portal that opens onto “the truth.” Rather than charge onto the premises, we go back and forth to get our bearings, and Costa’s beautifully constructed sounds and images are our guide and not a destination. For all their difficulty, and despite the fact they build on older work, Costa’s films are the cinema of the future, partly because of their intimate scale."