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cast: Ventura, Vanda Duarte, and Alberto 'Lento' Barros
director: Pedro Costa
149 minutes (12) 2006
Eureka DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Take a look at the reviews of this film and you will find a series of recurring motifs: the critic will begin by providing an overview of the film
with references to its background. Then, they will explain that Pedro Costa's films are difficult but that their difficulty has its place in contemporary
cinema. Finally, they will conclude their review by stating that the film is very beautiful and hand-waving a few broad themes that the film touches
upon. My review will stick quite closely to this template, but I will then explain why the template exists in the first place. Ready? Okay...
Colossal Youth (aka: Juventude Em Marcha) begins in the Lisbon slum known as Fontainhas. Crumbling walls, tiny windows, and narrow
passageways snake off into the darkness amidst pools of light cast by isolated streetlamps. From a window, a TV emerges. It crashes to the ground.
It is then followed by a number of other objects. We then move to the inside of the building where a striking woman holds a knife up to the light
and explains that she has had enough and that she is leaving. We then learn that she is the wife of Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean immigrant.
Bereft, Ventura begins to wander the streets and visit his old friends including the recovering junkie Vanda (Vanda Duarte) and the illiterate
labourer Lento (Alberto 'Lento' Barros). We then see Ventura being shown around a fresh new apartment in the neighbourhood of Casal Boba.
Evidently, Fontainhas has been demolished and its inhabitants have been re-housed in an apartment complex. Keenly aware that something will be lost
in the transition from the communal living on the slum to the isolated living of a modern apartment complex, Ventura convinces the administration to
give him a large flat so that he can house his 'children' and by 'children' he means friends. Colossal Youth is made up of a series of
semi-improvised conversations between Ventura and his 'children'. The people playing the children are not professional actors but genuine members
of Lisbon's underclass who lived through the demolition of the Fontainhas slum. Because of this, Colossal Youth is perhaps best understood
not as a film but as a cross between a sociological document and an experimental documentary that borrows from traditional film and traditional
documentary to produce two and a half hours of mind-searing boredom. I say boredom because this is an astonishingly inaccessible film.
In order to begin making sense of Colossal Youth, one must first know a bit about Portuguese society and the history of Lisbon. For example,
one must know that Portugal has a large population of Cape Verdean immigrants and that they lived in a slum and that said slum was demolished.
Secondly, one must have enough of an interest in the day-to-day lives of Cape Verdean immigrants to want to sit through a two and a half hour film
that explores their lives through the medium of long, rambling monologues that make very little sense. People who are familiar with the films of
Pedro Costa might find all of this a bit easier to follow as the recovering drug addict Vanda featured as the primary focus of his film In Vanda's
Room (2000). However, if you do not have press materials or a working knowledge of Costa's back catalogue and the history of Lisbon then chances
are that you will find this film too much effort for too little reward.
I first encountered Costa's work when his film O Sangue (1989) was re-released on DVD. Much like Colossal Youth, O Sangue is an
inaccessible slab of art house pomp full of meaningful pauses, glossed-over plot, minimalist characterisation and achingly beautiful cinematography.
While Costa's films are almost completely unwatchable, there is clearly a coherent vision behind the impenetrable boredom that dominates his films.
Because this coherent vision exists, Costa has found an audience for his decidedly singular and experimental approach to filmmaking. Indeed, while
I suspect that Costa has few followers outside of academic film studies and film schools, the substance that exists in his work means that his films
contribute to the evolution of the cinematic form. While the films that Costa makes may be boring and unwatchable, they will be influential and it
would not surprise me if Costa's devotees can find echoes of his work in that of the filmmakers who have come after him. As boring as his work may
be to me, I cannot deny that Costa is an important figure and that his films constitute a boon to the on-going evolution of the cinematic form.
Though I did not enjoy sitting through this film, it is beautifully shot and impressively conceived. Costa has an artist's eye for shot composition
and there is something remarkable about the way that he manages to coax such amazing images from real places and natural lighting. Colossal Youth
looks as though it was shot on a sound-stage with hi-tech lighting but Costa works entirely in the field. Though it is difficult to extract particular
themes or ideas from a film that is nothing but two and half hours of aimless conversation, one can detect a desire to engage with an almost mythical
sense of the lost. There is real beauty in the way that Ventura's wife comes to symbolise the loss of a community and way of life as well as a desire
to return home. There is substance to Colossal Youth but, fuck me, Costa makes you work hard in order to get at it!
There... told you. The reason why pretty much every review of this film follows this three-part template is that while Colossal Youth is
immensely dull, the film possesses enough substance to make a reviewer think twice about slating it. Costa's work is something of a shibboleth for
cinephiles and by slagging it off, you run the risk of throwing your lot in with Paul Ross and all of the other shameless hacks who can be relied
upon to give five stars to the latest romantic comedy. Unfortunately, while it is clear that the emperor is in fact wearing new clothes, there is
little that can be said about Costa's work other than 'it's very pretty', 'it's very difficult' and 'it's very important'. Because of this, it is
a lot easier to write around the film and not directly about it.
The difficulty involved in writing about the works of Pedro Costa is evident in the booklet of essays included as part of Eureka's magnificent DVD
release. The philosopher and critic Jacques Ranciere attempts to address the politics of Costa's films but instead he winds up talking about the
films' lack of political context and moves from there to focussing upon individual shots from a number of different films. The essay is undeniably
well-written and insightful in its observations but it is quite obvious that Ranciere never manages to discover the political subtext he sets out
to find. Similarly, the respected Portuguese critic Joao Benard da Costa devotes his essay to an analysis of a love letter which, though written by
Ventura to his absent wife, has clearly been passed down among Cape Verdean immigrants. The booklet concludes with a series of short thoughts on the
film and they too focus not upon the film itself but upon some of the ideas and images that lurk within it. Clearly, while reviewers find it difficult
to write about Costa's work, gifted critics find it no easier.
The first DVD also includes a 20-minute interview with Costa that was filmed during a recent retrospective of his work at the Tate gallery. Much like
his film, Costa is ponderous in his articulations and obscure in his references. I watched the interview both before and after viewing the film and
I struggled both times because, much like his films, Costa is difficult to understand because he takes an extraordinary amount of time to express what
it is that he wants to say. Somewhere around the fifth extended pause or the third sub-clause in an already very abstract and meandering sentence,
the mind begins to fog and the attention begins to wander. If ever there were any doubts about the coherence and singularity of Costa's cinematic
vision then look no further than this interview as Costa clearly makes films in the same way that he talks. Naturally enough, this barrier to
comprehension also applies to the extra material generously included on the package's second DVD.
Craig Keller's Finding The Criminal (2010) initially rubbed me the wrong way by pulling the Andy Kaufman-esque stunt of demanding that I
adjust my TV's aspect ratio before revealing itself to be nothing more than footage of three blokes sitting at a table and chatting. Though Keller
is a gifted critic and the questions he asks Costa are undeniably interesting (particularly on the issue of whether or not Costa's work can be
classified as film), it is pretty obvious that he is struggling to get a handle on Costa's work and so many of his questions are oblique to say the
least. However, once Keller latches on to the technical aspects of how Costa works, the interview finds its feet and some interesting points are made.
Also included on the second DVD is a suite of short films shot in and around the Fontainhas district featuring more Cape Verdean immigrants. Much
like Colossal Youth, Tarrafal (2007), The Rabbit Hunters (2008), and Our Man (2010), are all beautifully shot
semi-documentary exposes of life on the bottom rung of Portuguese society. Filled with sadness, elegance and an intense longing for a home that has
acquired an almost mythical status, these short films serve as handy bite-sized introductions to Costa's methods and concerns. Those people interested
in using this exquisite 'masters of cinema' edition of Colossal Youth as a starting point for exploring Costa's work would be well-advised to
begin with theses shorter films before launching into the vast expanse of Colossal Youth itself.
I have chosen to give this DVD a score of 7 out of 10 in the hope that it helps to convey my ambivalence about a director whose work, though clearly
important, is really not to my taste. If you are a fan of Costa's work then this masters of cinema release is a must-buy and the essays and interviews
with Costa are a substantial contribution to our understanding of such a difficult director. However, if you are looking for plot, character or well
developed themes then this is really not the film for you. Costa is unique and uniqueness does not make for accessibility.