Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room is a remarkable, all-encompassing portrait of the Fontainhas ghetto of Lisbon and the people who live there, a stunningly intimate and compassionate panorama of a truly grim way of life. In its epic length and patient observation, the film accumulates an extraordinary power by its conclusion, a realization of the unmistakable humanity that can exist even as everything turns to devastation and degradation.
At the center of this portrait is Vanda Duarte, an angular, slightly androgynous woman who spends her days selling lettuce and cabbage to the Fontainhas inhabitants and free-basing heroine with her sister Zita in the confines of her claustrophobic and filthy bedroom. Hers is a dour, self-destructive lifestyle, yet one not without its degree of perseverance, dedication, and dignity; Costa’s impressive achievement here is to flip any pre-conceived notions of lowly drug addicts, to assert their essential humanity rather than belittle them for their reckless choices or suggest that they are disposable. In fact, through his persistent camera, Costa is able to uncover these same positive qualities in a variety of characters who cohabit the same concrete dungeon as Vanda while also discovering the vital concept of community that survives in this scenario.
The film now exists as a memorial for this strangely self-contained slum, because throughout In Vanda’s Room it is being steadily demolished, resulting in the eviction and subsequent displacement of these already displaced immigrant souls (an experience Costa would tackle directly in his next film, Colossal Youth). While the rest of the world becomes transient and individualized and the New Europe furthers its diffusion of geographical and cultural identity, the people in Fontainhas cling to an established code, perhaps the only sense of consistency and stability they’ve known in their lives. The first post-credit shot of the film watches as Vanda’s lifelong friend, the recently evicted Nhurro, bathes in buckets of hot water in a dank and shadowy room. As he finishes, steam rolls off his entire body to create an image of spectral and otherworldly effervescence, and it’s as if Costa is immediately establishing the ghostly quality of these people, the fact that they are so vividly on the brink of total extinction.
Periodically the film will pull back from the human component of the film for a reminder of the mechanical demolition of the neighborhood. Long static shots reveal trucks crushing the cement foundations, and at one point, a couple of steel office buildings are glimpsed in the background of the debris, presumably the impetus for this drastic act of modernization. As a result, a sense of encroachment and time running out is always palpable in the film, always something that quite literally weighs heavily on the inhabitants as the sounds of destruction dominate the soundtrack.
Subtly, Costa is raising a correlation between this mindless form of destruction as political and economic “progress” and the more personal form of self-destructive drug abuse witnessed in the characters, in its own perverse way a route to satisfaction and fulfillment. Both are careless and reprehensible, but in Costa’s sublimely sympathetic vision the addicts seem almost justifiable in comparison to such an abstract political affair that would blindly annihilate an entire community of human beings for the supposed betterment of the greater good. In Vanda’s Room, then, is not as laissez-faire as its cinema vérité trappings might lead it to seem, but rather works as an understated indictment of these wrongheaded government attitudes.
As such, its finest and most potent argument is its peerless investigation of the private spaces behind the concrete walls where individuals – aside from consuming copious quantities of hard drugs – are harboring their own loves, desires, suspicions, and ideas. In a word, being human. In one scene, Vanda shows a group of friends and family a decrepit, utterly unsellable antique wooden ship that she plans to exchange in town for a modest wage and is met with skepticism and mockery. In another scene, an addict named Pango perseveres in mustering up a wardrobe out of scattered pieces of wood from old appliances that are lying around his dismal two-room apartment. And later, in the film’s most moving scene, an older man named Pedro offers a bouquet of roses to Vanda after she compulsively outlines the schedule for taking the respiratory treatment she just supplied him with (Vanda coughs incessantly in the film, and every time she does it’s as if her lung is flipping inside out). Each instance offers a small glimmer of camaraderie, resourcefulness, or kindness that powerfully articulates the vitality of these people better than any artificial dramatization of such a moment could.
Arguably it’s Costa’s severe technological transition that allowed for such piercing moments of authenticity (although I’d contend that nearly the same level of verisimilitude was already omnipresent in his comparatively bombastic Ossos, a work which utilized the traditional modes of production: a crew, lights, film, even some actors). In Vanda’s Room was born out of Costa, a single DV camera, and a sound recorder, and the results are surprisingly high-fidelity if not frequently evocative and distinctive expressions of the digital medium. Costa has a painterly eye for texture and light and the way the two interact that is not unlike that of Tarkovsky, evident in the film’s many lowly lit interiors where the deadpan expressions of people are offset by the grimy, clay-like shine of the walls and tables.
Visually, the film is at its most stunning at these moments, and when the illumination is reduced at several points to the glow of one or two candles – as it is during one grueling midnight session of heroine usage – the contrast between light and dark is accentuated even further, taking on a metaphorical dimension to suggest the increasing loss of light and hope from these people’s lives. Working in a similar fashion is Costa’s dense soundtrack, a never-ending chaotic drone of destruction, children playing, rats squeaking, and people, like Vanda, chattering away in their superficially short and irritable tones, which is always offscreen as if to represent both the unbreakable togetherness of this community as well as the constant distance of those inside to the outside world.
The overwhelming sadness of In Vanda’s Room is that these tiny shreds of human connection and satisfaction – even if they are centered around drugs – are soon to be extinguished and complicated by the eventual erasure of the neighborhood. In a conversation between Vanda and Nhurro in which the two of them discuss the prospect of whether their lives are predestined or chosen (Vanda is admirably always the source of assurance and nourishment in such scenes), it becomes clear that they have known each other since they were young, that they have struggled with the same issues for quite some time. The same is certainly the case for most of the people in the film, and the identical situation out of which they are forced to suck it up and start a new life is one that would be unspeakable in a less impoverished area of society. This shortsighted tendency to overlook the lower class is the real tragedy of In Vanda’s Room, and it’s one that Costa delicately and persuasively implicates the audience in through his calmly riveting filmmaking.