WHAT LINGERS BEHIND: PEDRO COSTA AT LINCOLN CENTER
By Devon Narine Singh
From July 17th to July 23rd, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) held “Let us Now Sing Praises of Famous Men: The Films of Pedro Costa”. On opening weekend the FSLC exhibited Costa’s films In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006). Interesting is the term that best describes the viewing experiences of Costa’s films, because allows for a spectrum of emotional responses.
Costa has an unique style and analysis of his films must be viewed through this lens. However that doesn’t excuse the fact that his films are so devoid of emotion. This may be controversial to suggest considering that Costa’s subject matters are grim (poverty, death, drug addiction). And yet once the film ends, one doesn’t come away gut-wrenched. In place of an emotional response, what emerges is the desire to engage in a dialogue about the film. Rather than do a traditional review, I rather focus on the aspects of the films that left an impression.
It seems odd that one of the most memorable details of Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room is the cough of lead actress Vanda Durate. It is rough, ugly, uncomfortable. One can even hear the phlegm that is filling her lungs each time she coughs. Her cough becomes synonymous with her drug addiction. She coughs the entire film whenever she uses drugs. The frailness of her body is a physical expression of her addiction: the cough an auditory expression of her addiction. Perhaps the real reason the cough is such a vivid aspect of the film is because of the amount of time in takes up in the film. The cough is repeated over and over again within a single scene. The repetition of the cough is disturbing. The aesthetics of slow cinema (static shots of an extended duration) are alienating and the ugliness and realism of the depiction of Vanda’s drug addiction, as epitomized by her cough, furthers the sense of alienation within the audience.
Another quality that emerges during the course of In Vanda’s Rooms is shadows, another impressional quality within Costa’s films. Costa shoots various characters in the shadows. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is a scene shot in total darkness save for two small candles. It is a distinct and defining moment that cannot be forgotten. The only moment that can equal the singularity of this scene, is a brief moment, that is one of the shortest shots in the film. The film was shot on tape and later converted to film, and the aesthetics produces one image of true unfilter grunge beauty: the room is lit green as one of the character smokes a cigarette. It is the iconic shot of the film and it is haunting.
The way Costa handles the drug addiction is fascinating. It is debate if the drug use is real or not. If it’s not, props to Costa. If it is real, that propose an ethical dilemma in the fact that Costa is putting his actors in danger by asking them to do drugs for his film. On the flip side it could be argued that the actors would have done drugs anyway. While it may seem presumptuous, but the reason I say this is because Costa uses nonprofessional actors and they just act out moments of their lives. They chose to show the drug aspects of their lives.
Costa also features a significant amount of footage showing the destruction of the neighborhood (a plot point that would be further explored in Colossal Youth). On surface level it is obvious for the inclusion of this footage, it is showing the end of the neighborhood and the citizen’s way of life. However in passing Costa mentions that Vanda’s stepdad is a construction worker. Perhaps these scene serve as visual representation of her stepfather who is never present in the house. Costa is such an abstract and vague filmmaker that a lot of the film can be left up to one’s interpretation.
The ending is a blank screen as music swells in the background. It is interesting that Costa ends the film on a melodramatic note (albeit render into something avantgarde). The film has had no score and yet it ends with a very classical film score. It’s moving and it hints at Costa’s influences from Hollywood (Costa was allowed to select films to screen as part of the retrospective and one of them was Howard Hawk’s The Land of Pharaohs).
More so than it’s “sequel” Colossal Youth (to be discussed in the next part), In Vanda’s Room leaves the audience with much more of an impact. Once again I return to words such as interesting and fascinating, that allow for a spectrum of thought to exist. Richard Brody did call Costa one of the most original directors working today and after seeing In Vanda’s Room, the fact that the film is original is something that cannot be denied.