Friday, July 18, 2014

Luc Sante, "The Space Between"

Ossos, the first of Pedro Costa's three linked films concerning the now-demolished slum Estrela d'Africa, in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, is a lovely picture, a sad story, and an appropriately bare-bones (the title means "bones") piece of filmmaking, reminiscent of the late movies of Robert Bresson, in its ellipses and silences and muted colors. Here, Costa begins the process of imagining himself into the fabric of the slum, which is at once a fearsome place--a sort of fortress of poverty, defended against intruders and ruled by drugs--and a lively, teeming environment in which poor native Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants are heaped together without the sorts of boundaries that divide middle-class lives.

Costa got to know the neighborhood as a result of making his 1995 film Casa de lava, a sort of remake of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. Tourneur is a favorite of Costa's, a director who combined genre-based populism with a great delicacy of touch and deep feeling for his characters. Costa shot the picture in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, and after filming, local residents loaded him down with mail and parcels to deliver to their relatives in Fontainhas. The three movies he subsequently made there track, among other things, his increasing familiarity with the neighborhood and intimate understanding of its inhabitants.

Ossos shows Costa operating as an outsider in the neighborhood, unfamiliar with its protocols and shibboleths, approaching it with the working methods of a cosmopolitan maker of art films. Over the course of the trilogy, he would alter his style of filmmaking, both to be less intrusive and to match the internal logic and rhythms of the place--dispensing with crew, script, and actors; developing an improvisatory method with a cast of residents; and, vitally, switching from film to video--but initially, he came in with a team, outside players, and a story that dramatized what he saw there.

At the beginning of Ossos, Tina (Maria Lipkina) has just given birth. The father (Nuno Vaz), who remains unnamed, is not up to the challenge; he seems capable of little but trash-picking at the produce market. Tina, for her part, is quietly despondent. An older neighbor, Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), attempts to rally the young parents, with no success. Tina tries to gas herself and the baby, or maybe she just falls asleep instead. The father comes home and perhaps saves them, or perhaps decides to succumb himself--in any event, all three survive. We then see the father taking the baby downtown, in a plastic bag that he first carries like a grocery sack, then cradles. Later, he's begging in a central square, the baby in his arms. Things slowly go from bad to worse.

This summary makes the movie sound much more melodramatic than it actually plays. The story might be an incident in some nineteenth-century slum epic by Victor Hugo or Stephen Crane, and it echoes Chaplin's The Kid, as well as forecasts the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant. Costa, however, chooses to muffle his drum, deemphasizing all the most dramatic moments, relegating pivotal occurrences behind an unseen curtain between shots. Most of what actually happens on-screen is transitional, almost as if Costa were selecting the very things that a more conventional movie would elide. For example, in the gassing incident, we first see Tina closing the windows of a room in which the baby lies on a couch, then dragging in a propane canister. Then she sits staring forward for a long while. We cut to a brief scene, viewed through a window, of Clotilde serving dinner to her family. We see the baby's father come back to the compound; stop, paralyzed, for a protracted moment on the walk outside; enter the kitchen; and drink from the faucet. Then he crosses the room in which Tina and the baby are asleep or unconscious, and goes into the bedroom and lies down on the bed. A moment later--there is no cut--Tina enters, tries to rouse him, and finally resorts to dragging him by the feet into the room where the baby lies on the couch, waving fingers. What just happened?

The rhythms themselves are powerfully suggestive of inertia and despair, independent of the story. The parents are beautiful and childlike, but their childhood has been closed down, and they have few resources for coping with the alternative. Tina may at length discover some source of strength within herself--Clotilde finds her a job, and after a bit of resistance, she goes to it doggedly. The father, on the other hand, is turned inward, trying to make himself invisible, trying to make everything go away. Everywhere he goes, he sits silently, eyes unfocused, unlikely to rise to any occasion, ever. In contrast, Clotilde is energetic and capable, having presumably seen worse and endured it. She is the life force--not a moralizing figure but a staunchly practical one, with no illusions. (Vanda Duarte, who plays Clotilde, would go on--playing some version of herself--to be central in the two remaining pictures in the trilogy.)

Their neighborhood qualifies as a character in its own right, and a measure of Costa's special gifts is the way in which he plunges the viewer into its life with no introduction or explanations. We slowly figure out that the children--the sentinel boy, the girl waiting for breakfast--are Clotilde's and that the imperious man over there is her husband. On the other hand, we never learn exactly who the young women are, the ones who work in the restaurant and at home occupy themselves as watchers--through a window, from an entranceway, smoking a cigarette, appearing to keep accounts of everyone's activities. They are presences as obdurate and insistent as if we were new residents ourselves, unsure of anything but the certainty that we are being watched.

The neighborhood is a jumble of houses and alleys that looks like a stage set or a Hopi pueblo much the worse for wear. There are constant movement and noise and activity at all hours, with an odd, staggered tempo of indolence and urgency. A brief visit to a party defines the rhythm--people seem to dance to the percolating, accordion-driven bounce by sashaying their hips but dragging their feet around the room in a circle. The neighborhood is sufficiently inclusive and, somehow, protective that the outside world--the Lisbon of middle-class apartments and shops and institutions, which is inevitably closer to the way we, the viewers, actually live--looks thin and cold and artificial by contrast. Estrela d'Africa has texture and color; the bourgeois city is orderly and rectilinear and bleached.

The emissary of that ultramontane region is Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), a nurse who tries to intervene on everyone's behalf while finding herself inexorably drawn to the life of the slum. She is our stand-in, after a fashion--well-meaning, impatient, guilty, prurient. We are in that position just as Costa must have felt himself to be, barging into the favela with his cables and trucks and assistants and craft tables. It was not a given that he would follow this movie with one he shot on video, all by himself, for over a year, that he would take the next step of dispensing with outside referents altogether. But in Ossos, his ambivalence is at its height, and that in itself makes for palpable tension. You can sense an authorial struggle, for example, in the figure of the father: Is the character so shut down that his soul lies in some inaccessible well, or is there simply nothing there? Do we outsiders even have the right to pass judgment on the decisions of people caught in such desperate circumstances? Can we rise to the level of Clotilde, who is equally capable of extending mercy and pronouncing sentence, despite our not having earned her experience?

Ossos is a beautiful painterly play of faces and hands, a marvel of narrative economy, a long hallway lined with doors that may lead to understanding just as they may lead to cul-de-sacs. It is a nineteenth-century feuilleton filtered through the ambiguities  of our time and executed with a mesmerizing delicacy. It is alive with small mysteries that change and grow with every successive viewing.

(Luc Sante's books include Low Life, Kill All Your Darlings, and Folk Photography. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.)

--from the Criterion Collection's edition of Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa: Ossos, (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), a director-approved special edition, a set of four DVDs, including the supplemental booklet where Luc Sante's "The Space Between" appears.

copyright by Luc Sante and the Criterion Collection