War is like divorce in that those who are hurt most are not its instigators, but rather those subordinate to them who are powerless to effect the outcome. Throughout the years, countries in the midst of, or recovering from, periods of social and cultural upheaval have been a mine for artistic expression. As Welles’ Harry Lime famously said in The Third Man, “in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.” In recent years, countries such as Iran, Taiwan, and Hungary have emerged as unlikely leaders in world cinema. In 1974 Portugal underwent the Carnation Revolution that returned the nation to a democratic instead of an authoritarian dictatorship and now, 30 years on, it appears a distinct artistic voice is emerging from the turmoil.
In 2006, the shock-waves of the revolution are still being felt, especially on the impoverished. Colossal Youth is Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s third film set in Lisbon’s Fontainhas neighborhood (after No Quarto da Vanda and Ossos), and it focuses on a man named Ventura (most of the actors’ names are the same as their “characters”) who is being evicted from his dilapidated apartment building. To make matters worse, his wife, Clotilde (Isabel Cardoso) has left him, but not before taking all of their belongings and cutting his hand. Throughout the film, Ventura takes to frequently visiting his “children”, mainly Vanda and Lento. Vanda is a mother who only rarely gets to see her daughter because she is a recovering drug addict. Lento is also separated from his wife, and begs Ventura to write an apologetic love letter to her. Ventura also meets with other people who may or may not be his children (the film is frequently vague on this point) such as Cila and Paulo.
Like Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang, another austere, modern-day art-house director with a keen visual style, Pedro Costa composes the film in static long-takes that generally abide by the “one scene, one shot, one take” rule. Costa combines this with a visual style that seems rich in art tradition. Night scenes are frequently framed with images carved out of a ghostly light, sculpting abstracts out of disintegrating architecture and leaving expressive black voids around its corners like a Goya painting preparing to devour its inhabitants. Elsewhere Costa’s frames appear like theatrical tableau vivants, with characters freezing as if in a painting, or still life in which, for example, the bright red of a vase of flowers will pop out of the frame when set against a stark, gray background. Costa frequently uses off-balance frames with one corner heavily weighted so that the emptiness of the other permeates with a sense of unease. When the film does move outside, the aesthetics shift from modern to an almost classical, pastoral one.
Unlike Tsai, however, Costa does not refrain from dialogue. If anything, Colossal Youth is a film drowning in dialogue. One scene finds Ventura on Vanda’s bed in her cramped apartment (one of the many key, repeated locations) with her relating the story of her pregnancy in an unbroken take that drags on for over ten minutes and shifts from the introspective and sad to the downright hilarious. Like so many other scenes it seems to capture the film’s many paradoxes; it superficially exists on the every-day level of someone relating a story to another, yet also seems to be working on a metaphoric level: the painful birthing process, having someone’s love taken from them almost immediately and struggling to get it back.
Most wouldn’t think that a long-take aesthetic would allow for much inventive use of editing, but in this instance, they’d be wrong. For instance, the film opens with someone throwing objects out of a window. The next scene cuts to a woman standing in a narrow stairwell holding a knife and relating an abstract story from her past as she eventually descends. We only learn later that this must be the woman named Clotilde who has left Ventura. But Ventura says about her, “I think it was her, though it could have been a ghost”. Indeed, her opening monologue seems to linger over the rest of the film like a curse. Ghosts haunt the film not just in its content but in its montage where Costa makes use of extended motifs by returning to barren locations and rote dialogue (e.g. the letter that Ventura constantly reads to Lento hoping that he can memorize it). It’s as if these repetitions are trying to imprint these locations and all the history they carry with them into memory.
Colossal Youth is concerned with many things, but primarily with memories. Most every scene involves characters discussing the past. When they are forced into the present an eerie silence seems to descend over the images. This is especially noticeable in the scenes with Ventura searching for a new apartment. These buildings stand in stark contrast to his old ones: tall, geometrically precise figures that stand up against a clear sky. Inside, the walls are “blank” white and the rooms are empty—a potent symbol for the lack of humanity within them: no memories, no history, no stories, no life. In contrast, the slums, while disintegrating on the surface, still seem to tell a story of the people who live there. In one telling scene, Ventura sits with one of his daughters as the two discuss the spectral figures they see on the walls—the same way one might lay on a hill and use pareidolia to make images out of clouds—and they remark how they won’t be able to do this anymore in their new buildings.
If negative criticism is to be found, it’s in the undeniable nature of the film’s severe impenetrability. This is not an easy film by any means, and those with no knowledge of its director, its socio-historical context, or its visual cues will likely find themselves lost or downright bored; a testament to this is the fact that many even walked out of its Cannes showing. As fascinating as the film is to contemplate and write about, I can’t say the experience itself quite matches it, and I even found my patience occasionally wearing thin. Plus, considering that it runs for two-and-a-half hours, I find it difficult to enthusiastically recommend that everyone dare to brave it. This is a film for aesthetically hungry, wide-eyed moviegoers who find themselves willing to sacrifice traditional plot and character dynamics for a demanding artistic enterprise.
Ultimately, Colossal Youth resides somewhere between the polar ends of mythological allegory and social document, improvisation and scripted drama, people and characters, ascetic artifice and hardcore realism, sardonic humor and poignant drama, and between mythical dreams and every-day “reality”… it’s a film that continuously, tenuously, walks the line between a rich diversity of artistic and cinematic traditions. It’s a demanding yet frequently absorbing film whose pristinely composed frames seem haunted by a past we can just vaguely sense. We wander its miasmic, Byzantine maze of repetitions and watch as its deceptive minimalism verges on Homeric levels of high poetry, yet it never feels anything less than genuine to its place and the very real people who inhabit it. It’s an immensely impressive film in a million different ways, and it leaves me anxious to see more from its director.