“If Only I Could Direct Its Course”: On Pedro Costa

One way to get talking about the films of the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, which often seem designed to defy verbal summary, is to focus on what they refuse to show. The shot that introduces ...

One way to get talking about the films of the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, which often seem designed to defy verbal summary, is to focus on what they refuse to show. The shot that introduces Mariana (Inês de Medeiros), the young nurse at the center of Costa’s second feature Casa de Lava, proceeds from a close-up on the face of an unnamed construction worker to a still tighter view of Mariana peering down with rapt concentration, lips firmly closed as she concentrates on something we cannot see. What is she looking at? Where does she come from? What is she thinking? Whose voice is that creaking on the soundtrack? And whose hands are those, shooting up out of the bottom of the frame—when they do—to take hold of her close-cropped hair? That the shot lingers for a half-beat on the hands in question after Mariana wrestles out of the frame is typical of Costa’s beguiling, elusive method of setting up a scene. Direct, intense, sometimes prolonged confrontations between the camera and its subjects, or, in some cases, between one character and another, give way to sudden evacuations, brief collisions, and movements half-glimpsed, fleeting or sharply curtailed. Three shots in Casa de Lava, by my count, begin with their only human subjects leaving the frame.

 As of now, Costa’s body of work includes a gossamer fairy-tale (O Sangue), a sinewy urban drama hovering just this side of over-labored social realism (Ossos), a magisterial work of portraiture devoted to Lisbon’s neglected poor (In Vanda’s Room), a pair of comparatively down-tempo nonfiction movies about the private processes of, respectively, film editing and musical rehearsal (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? and Ne Change Rien), and a hushed, achingly sad ghost story (Colossal Youth). His most recent semi-fiction film, Horse Money, is something like an extension of the methods and tone of Colossal Youth. Both films are organized around a Cabo Verdean immigrant named Ventura, who spends the earlier movie visiting his many symbolic “children” in the housing projects to which they’ve recently been relocated and wandering through the rubble-strewn blocks that were once the Lisbon slum in which he, and they, lived. Horse Money’s setting is less specific; it could be a hospital, a jail, or—more likely—a kind of purgatory. But it, too, is a movie of concrete, rattling details, starting with the date of the knife fight Ventura recalls having gotten into at a handful of key junctures throughout the film: March 11, 1975, not quite four months before Cabo Verde’s declaration of independence from Portugal.

“I took a spill over there,” Ventura tells one of his “children” in Colossal Youth. (The pair is sitting in a park while Ventura gestures, as often happens in Costa’s films, to a point outside the frame.) “Slipped and fell off the scaffold.” Is he a later incarnation, then, of Leão (Isaach de Bankolé), the Cabo Verdean laborer whose fall from a scaffold in the opening minutes of Casa de Lava sets that movie’s train of events in motion? He often recites a wistful love letter identical to the one that Mariana finds on Leão midway through the earlier film. (For the letter’s text, Costa combined a handful of notes home from Cape Verdean emigrants with one of the poet Robert Desnos’s last letters to his wife after his internment in a concentration camp in Flöha.) And it’s difficult to see him walk lurchingly through a darkened tunnel near the start of Horse Money without thinking of the lumbering, re-animated body of the dead Haitian man in I Walked With a Zombie, the serene, chilling 1941 Jacques Tourneur horror movie on which Casa de Lava is loosely based.

Like that film, Casa de Lava begins in earnest with a movement out of the city. Cabo Verde, in Costa’s films centered on Ventura, comes off as a distant abstraction. To this character so acutely dispossessed, home is not the sort of place to which anyone could actually go. One respect in which Casa de Lava diverges from the rest of Costa’s work is that, of all Costa’s fictional or semi-fictional movies, it is the only one to imagine a Lisbon from which there are still exits—if only the sort you’d find in a fairy tale. Leão, comatose and near death after his fall, finds his way back to Fogo, the island in the archipelago where he once had some family, after receiving a summons from a mysterious benefactor who also, it’s soon revealed, paid his way across the North Atlantic. Mariana, like Francis Dee’s nurse in I Walked With a Zombie, goes with him.

It is surely on Costa’s mind here that Cabo Verde, for centuries, was a crucial stopping-point in the Atlantic slave trade. (Ribeira Grande, which once ranked as the archipelago’s most prosperous town, was also one of the area’s most sought-after slave markets, in part because the island colony had an exclusive trading arrangement with the West African coast.) The archipelago’s first settlers brought their own slaves with them to work the land, just as Mariana—the only white, middle-class Portuguese native on which any of Costa’s movies have focused to date—brings Leão to Fogo at the start of Casa de Lava. Near the start of I Walked With a Zombie, Francis Dee’s Haitian driver tells her, as he ferries her to the plantation-style mansion at which she’s been hired to live, about “the enormous boat” that “brought the long-ago fathers and the long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom.” Her answer is to look admiringly at the scenery and say that, after all, “they brought you to a beautiful place”—to which the driver replies with a serene “if you say, miss.”

Mariana is not so oblivious. She moves through the film with a kind of uneasy, owlish watchfulness; an early shot shows her striding through the streets of São Filipe in a loose-fitting sundress, swinging her arms briskly at her side, less a stranded tourist than a confident surveyor. She sleeps in a hammock by the hospital or in the sand on the beach, where she fends off a violent assault one night by a young boy. When Costa shoots her sitting at a dance next to an elderly violinist, it’s from behind their backs. As the man makes bantering small talk with the members of his family, who face him from deep in the background, she turns her head, shifts her arm and looks out of the frame with a shadow of a smile at, you feel, less his jokes than her tenuous position in this place to which she doesn’t belong. Inês de Medeiros’s performance is a balance of lost-child sadness—watch the way she plops petulantly down in the sand next to the violinist as they walk the path that leads to the island’s active volcano—and steely, businesslike resolve, with the occasional addition of a third, disruptive ingredient. At the end of the shot just described, her eyes widen unexpectedly, shimmering with passionate, hungry attention for whatever it is she’s gazing at. She looks, during these moments in the movie, like a person possessed.

If Ventura comes off as the performer with whom Costa has the most stimulating and intimate mutual understanding, it’s the director’s female actors—Mariya Lipkina in Ossos, Jeanne Balibar in Ne Change Rien and, unforgettably, Vanda—with whom he often stages the most piercing and radiant of his close-ups. There is a way of watching Costa’s films that would set him up as a confrontational portraitist in the spirit of Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, or Jacob Riis, whose landmark collection How The Other Half Lives included the photos of New York tenement families that cycle past us in Horse Money’s opening scene. The close-ups through which Costa flips in the atonal montage that opens Casa de Lava—a catalogue of a few of the island’s women, including a dead ringer for Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs—are, that said, more evasive and circumspect than those of Evans or Hine; their eyes are always angled slightly away from the camera, which studies them with the sort of blunt, direct gaze they’re unwilling to return. It’s de Medeiros, a member of Costa’s early creative circle who also starred in O Sangue and played a supporting role in Ossos, who participates in the most disarmingly direct of the movie’s close-ups. It can be tempting to say that she’s always looking through the camera rather than returning its gaze, but that wouldn’t be quite right. When they point their eyes somewhere, Costa’s characters tend to be less looking than listening, intuiting, and—most often—thinking.

It’s suggestive of the state of Lisbon during Costa’s youth that he was born a year before the showy, high-profile 1960 inauguration of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a massive cement monument to the Portuguese Age of Exploration that juts out, ship-like, into the northern bank of the Tagus. The cross-shaped north side of the Padrão, which faces the city, includes a dedication to “the Portuguese that discovered the roads of the sea”—many of whom, including Vasco de Gama, Francis Xavier, and Luís de Camões, appear as towering, full-body sculptures on the monument’s sides.

The thought that Portugal’s glory as a nation was someway linked to its having in a distant past “discovered the roads of the sea” was held in general contempt by 1977, when Costa enrolled in film school. Three years before, the country’s Estado Novo regime had been overthrown in the Carnation Revolution, and its African colonies set on a fast track to independence. It was during this time that Costa first discovered the films he’d come to know best—his later style would owe, by his admission, a profound debt to the television work Godard was then making with Anne-Marie Miéville—and met the teachers who would go on to have a major influence on his life and work: Serge Daney, the brilliant French critic who helped Costa resist the dogmatic strain of Marxism in vogue throughout Lisbon at the time, and António Reis, the filmmaker whose cinematic vocabulary, a new synthesis of documentary realism, ethnography, fiction, and fantasy, gave Costa a model from which to work in his early films. (Another model came from the movies that were starting to make their way by 1980 to Lisbon’s newly-expanded cinematheque, including the complete work of Ford, Tourneur, Mizoguchi, Rossellini, and Nicholas Ray.)

Costa had been living on his own since he was fourteen—his mother died when he was still a child—and his movies from O Sangue on have always been about, at least in part, the experience of rootlessness, of drift, of imagining the world as something into which you’ve been rudely thrown. (The exception is arguably his performance movies, in which the space of the performance in question—editing a film, rehearsing a song—tends to nurture and cushion in a way the environments in Costa’s fiction films barely ever do.) It’s perhaps partly for this reason that the bitter aftermath of Portugal’s centuries-long colonial project, and the estrangement that crept into the lives of the colonized on being relegated to Lisbon’s invisible housing projects and slums, had a particular power over Costa as a cinematic subject. It opened up, for him, the chance of making films with one foot in the torturous history of a nation and one foot in the inner, thinking, sensible lives of individual people.

As the feverish, haphazard shoot for Casa de Lava inched ahead, Costa developed a closer bond with the island’s residents. Several asked him to pass on messages or letters to their relatives in Lisbon. That job first brought him to Fontaínhas, the impoverished neighborhood where he shot Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and portions of Colossal Youth. By the time Costa was starting that third film, the neighborhood had been all but torn down. The people of Fontaínhas—including Ventura—play versions of themselves, and the friendships Costa had developed with them in the making of Vanda gave him more freedom to film them in boredom or at thought than he had ever had with Casa de Lava’s professional cast. (Costa’s relationship with de Bankolé was particularly strained; the two, Costa later remembered, came to blows at one point during one of the shoot’s most chaotic days.)

Yet Casa de Lava deserves special attention in Costa’s work, I think, as the only one of the director’s movies to deal primarily with the inner life of the colonizer, rather than that of the colonized. Camões could have been describing the drift of Mariana’s thought in one of his earliest elegies, written during his forced stay at a Portuguese garrison in Northern Africa around 1547:


I meditate at times on the newness
and oddity of things, such as change,
if only I could direct its course,
and my mind struck by this foreign land,
these new ways of being human,
a different people with customs I find strange.


Then again, he could well not be; one of the equally rewarding and frustrating aspects of Costa’s style is that his characters, even when we find them lost in thought, never divulge the thought’s full contents. Certainly one way to take Casa de Lava is as a portrait of a young woman stirred up by her exposure in this town to “new ways of being human”: that, for instance, of the younger girl she communes with in loaded silences, or the aging violinist with whom she develops an unmistakably tender relationship over the course of the film, or the middle-aged Portuguese woman (Edith Scob, famous for her work with the French director Georges Franju) who came to the archipelago many years before with her husband, staying after his death.

What makes Mariana such a slippery character is that this sort of curiosity is always ceding ground to her stronger, more violent desire for control. Part of what comes out whenever Costa films her head-on is her regret over her inability to steer the town—and the film—in the same way that Camões wants to steer the movement of things at the Ceutan outpost where he’d been brusquely left before that poem’s writing: to “direct its course.” That Casa de Lava comes at its viewers in a series of jagged scenes that shift unexpectedly from day to night and back, alternate between mundane stretches of daily business and blips of sudden, violent action, and often leave themselves open to the intrusion of new, eerier, more dreamlike tones gives you the feeling that the course of the movie is being fought over as you watch it, or that Mariana—to the extent that she acts in the movie as a kind of director—can’t manage to keep full control of the wheel.

The climax of Horse Money, made twenty years after Casa de Lava, is a bitter, agonizing confrontation in a cramped elevator between Ventura and a Portuguese soldier painted head to foot in gold. But to call it a “confrontation” is not quite right; the soldier never opens his mouth once in the scene’s 20 minutes, and his disembodied voice mingles on the soundtrack with others: occasionally tender, more often hostile, derisive, or aloof. Call it instead a picture of what it looks like—and, just as importantly, what it sounds like—for Ventura when he reminds himself what he’s suffered, what he’s been denied, what sins he’s committed, and what his life has come to: the knife fight he got into as a nineteen-year-old when, like many other West African immigrants, he went to hide in the woods during the Carnation Revolution; the wife he left behind when he left Cabo Verde for Lisbon to work (like Leão in Casa de Lava) as a construction worker; the wedding dress he bought her; the ring they made him take off.

That scene, like the rest of the movie from which it comes, resembles what I Walked with a Zombie might have looked like had that film taken place inside the unnamed zombie’s head. The movie’s piecemeal structure makes sense, you could argue, only if you assume that it is Ventura—now afflicted by a nervous ailment that causes a constant tremor in his hand—who is generating each of the scenes through which he movies, in these places, in this order, and under these particular sorts of light. (No other filmmaker, I would argue, has found the same sort of texture, density, liquidness, and luster as Costa has in light filmed digitally.) A hospital stay during which a handful of his friends and honorary children keep a vigil by his bed; an encounter with a Portuguese military tank; a confrontation at knife-point in the woods; a handful of aimless walks that take him through construction sites, basements and underground passageways: to watch the movie is to see what Ventura sees when he imagines himself passing through a gallery of his nightmares, memories and dreams.

The sort of modernism on display in Costa and Denis, whose movies likewise often reckon with the aftermath of European colonialism in Africa, has always been, in some part, about generating sympathy for oppressed peoples or clarifying the motives of their oppressors.

At the heart of the movie is a series of conversations between Ventura and another Cabo Verdean immigrant named Vitalina, who, unlike Ventura, can read. In her first scene, she recites her birth certificate in his presence, followed by the death certificate of the man she married young. Later in the movie, he passes her—it’s unclear how he got it—a letter her husband wrote to her before his death. Vitalina moves to a nearby window, reads the letter silently, turns to the camera, looks at it—and at Ventura, and at us—with an enigmatic smile, then proceeds into the hospital room to which she’s just been called.

That she refuses to share her feelings with Ventura, and with the movie, is another way of saying that Ventura, not knowing her, cannot imagine what the letter might say­—no more than Mariana could imagine what the women of Fogo might say when, late in Casa de Lava, she encounters a several of them standing silently together, late at night, in the middle of a road. Leão, in contrast, does speak after waking up from his coma earlier in that movie. Him, she can imagine: his irreverence, the demands he makes of her, his lack of respect for the authority with which she once thought of herself as invested.

Casa de Lava premiered at the 1994 Cannes film festival, part of a program of Un Certain Regard selections that also included Claire Denis’s I Can’t Sleep and Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water. Whereas Assayas’s sensibility has quieted down since that furious movie, Costa’s and Denis’s have done something closer to souring or hardening. One way to take Horse Money and Bastards, Denis’s embittered 2013 film noir, is as confessions of the failure of a certain kind of European high modernist cinema—elliptical, fragmented, interested in staging, or making visible, the movement of individual consciousnesses—to do the sort of productive political work on its audience it was meant to.

The sort of modernism on display in Costa and Denis, whose movies likewise often reckon with the aftermath of European colonialism in Africa, has always been, in some part, about generating sympathy for oppressed peoples or clarifying the motives of their oppressors. Mariana is something like an ideal subject for that sort of treatment: a proud, educated free agent who can be shown coming to grips—revealingly, damningly—with the limits of her own control. There are, in contrast, no lessons left for Ventura to teach himself, no positive epiphanies for him to undergo, nothing about the plumbing of his consciousness that will, in the end, do him any good. Done in the wrong way, mapping the roads of his soul can be just as pernicious, Horse Money hints, as striving to “discover the roads of the sea.” Done right, it will have all the comfort of a diagnosis of a nervous twitch without a cure.


The Film Society of Lincoln Center will be presenting a comprehensive survey of Pedro Costawork beginning tomorrow, July 17, and running through July 23.  icon

Featured image: Inês de Medeiros as Mariana in Pedro Costas Casa de Lava