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a haunted look

September 17, 2009

[Guardian] Next week, Tate Modern in London is unveiling a complete retrospective by a director who I can only describe as the Samuel Beckett of world cinema: and even that comparison doesn’t quite convey how severe and how uncompromisingly difficult his movies have latterly become. This is the Portugese film-maker Pedro Costa – a cult master, a figure who is widely considered on the festival circuit to be for hardcore auteur followers only. A Pedro Costa film does not get a “release”. It does not “do business” – any more than a piece by Edgar Varèse rules the iTunes chart. I myself have seen critics and writers at festivals gird their loins reasonably happily for a Béla Tarr film. But at the words “Pedro Costa“, they flinch. A haunted look comes into their eyes.

Now, I can understand this. But considering the arc represented by Costa’s major features O Sangue, or Blood (1989), Ossos, or Bones (1997), No Quarto Do Vanda, or In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Juventude Em Marcha, or Onward Youth (2007), I now believe that his career arc is one of the most fascinating in modern cinema. Following this career is not, however, easy and Costa does not make it easy, increasingly setting his films in the collapsing rubble of Fonthainas, Lisbon’s grimmest slum. He favours interminably long shots, long silences, long aimless semi-audible conversations between semi-comatose drug addicts: like watching a Big Brother live feed direct from some of the most poverty-stricken places in Europe. When Onward Youth was briefly shown in the UK last year, it appeared under the title Colossal Youth, and the trade press cheerfully dubbed it “Colossal Bore”. My colleague Cath Clarke wrote about this film last year with great insight.

This director increasingly contrives scenes in cramped rooms in semi-darkness, shot from below, with perhaps one light-source in the form of a window in the top right corner of the frame, which glows without illuminating the scene. His most recent film is Ne Change Rien, which applies this technique, eccentrically, to a film about the singing career of the French film star Jeanne Balibar, who is shown rehearsing, performing and recording in a weird crepuscular darkness. (read)

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