Thursday, March 5, 2020

Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela” and Angela Schanelec’s "I Was at Home, But..." at Northwest Film Forum: Mar 11 - 20

After its brief three night run at SIFF Cinema, Pedro Costa's Locarno Film Festival winner comes to the Northwest Film Forum for a more substantial run. Along with Angela Schanelec’s "I Was at Home, But...", Costa's “Vitalina Varela” represents a current vein of lower budget, formally exploratory, politically inflected cinema which the Swiss festival has become known for showcasing. With his most recent film, which is deserving of being seen for it's exquisite visual palette alone, Costa has refined the grain of his composite of non-actors, chiaroscuro lighting, found locations and stylized delivery to such an intense degree that it has achieved a kind of profound Newtonian coefficience. If anything, “Vitalina Varela” seemed more massive in it's density, uncompromising in its seriousness, and more determined to create an alternative to sentimental narrative closure and resolution. The story of its protagonist's mourning and rebirth continuing the Portuguese director’s observations on the residents of Fontainhas, with Ventura, and now Vitalina, as Costa's primary creative partners and subjects in a deeply saturated dramatic portraiture. Looking to his wider filmmography, there's clear reason why the Criterion Collection referred to Pedro Costa as, "One of the most important artists on the international film scene today". But as Akiva Gottlieb's "A Cinema of Refusal: On Pedro Costa" for The Nation makes clear, the Portuguese director is not lacking in champions. This all came on the heels of the Cannes premier in 2006 of "Colossal Youth" which elevated him to the most widely heralded new filmmaker of the past decade in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, Cinema-Scope, Senses of Cinema and Film Comment.

It was the Criterion release, and touring arthouse retrospective "Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa" which brought the Fontainhas project to a wider audience. These describe the very heart of the paradox that anchors his work; the idea that a cinema of such austere, formalist pacing and technique, can be the most democratic use of the medium imaginable. It is in this balance of form and content that Costa has established his moral imperative. In his discovery of the sequestered barrios and slums of Lisbon, and their dark alleys and crowded homes that appealed to him aesthetically. The 2015 interview with Film Comment describes how it was that his exposure to this dilapidated sector of Lisbon prompted him to re-examine his relationship with cinema as a vehicle to affirm the existence of the dispossessed, and began a refinement of his form to match the starkness of a human struggle that went on there day in, day out, removed from view. Through Film Comment's "House of the Spirits" and interview with the director at Locarno in 2019, Costa speaks at length on his inaugurating a radical form of collaborative nonfiction to meet these demands. Through which he has predominantly focused on the Cape Verdean immigrants that populated Lisbon's unlit labyrinths who disarmed him with their directness and fortitude. Costa turning to moviemaking at a period in his personal life when Portugal itself was coming to grim terms with its colonial legacy.

From this context and his unorthodox ways of watching the work of the 20th century masters, Yasujiro Ozu, Straub-Huillet, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tourneur, and Kenji Mizoguchi, that Costa found a vocabulary with which to confront his country’s past. Classifications don't easily adhere to his films; they are formalist, yet they pulse with poetry, humility life and warmth; they are ascetic but also deeply expressive; they are glacially patient and yet possessed of a natural, flowing sense of rhythm. All of these figure in his return to the winding streets, ruinous interiors, alleys, dark hillsides, (and literal underworld) depicted in "The Turning of the Earth: Pedro Costa's Mesmerizing Trance Film" as a portrait of his Fontainhas everyman, Ventura José Tavares Borges. A protagonist last seen in the short film "Sweet Exorcism" as part of the Centro Histórico anthology, from which "Horse Money" enfolded a particularly oneiric passage. This "Surreal Voyage Into the Past" as Ben Kenigsberg's review for the New York Times calls it, is in many ways a haunting disembodied "Existential Ghost Story that Will Get Under Your Skin". Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week review and Cinema-Scope's interview with the director, "L’avventura: Pedro Costa on 'Horse Money'", are our guides to Lisbon's "Elliptical and Mysterious" rhythms of the afterlife as Ventura wends through the city, passing through a lifespan of adversaries, lovers, dreams and remembrances.