Tarrafal, 2007. In an episode that occurs halfway through Tarrafal, Cape Verdean immigrant José Alberto, having just received his expulsion notice, encounters the elderly, displaced Fonthainas resident Ventura waiting on the side of a dirt road as his friend, Alfredo tries in vain to catch rabbits by thrashing random bushes with a wooden club. In a way, the idea of silent, enduring landscapes as figurative intersections for other unfolding – and often converging – human stories (a recurring theme in José Luis Guerín’s cinema as well) may be seen as a metaphor for Pedro Costa’s densely layered themes of dislocation and statelessness. As subsequently revealed in The Rabbit Hunters, Alfredo, too, is homeless, resorting to a life in the streets after having been thrown out of the apartment by his wife. In Tarrafal, this converging image of forced – and implicitly traumatic – displacement and exile is established in the opening images of José Alberto’s ironic inquiries to his mother over the derelict conditions of their ancestral houses in Cape Verde from his own ramshackle home in the slums. As the conversation morphs from the neglect and inhabitability of their beloved, deserted homes that recalls the reclamation of abandoned ghost houses in In Vanda’s Room, to the strange tales of a blood-sucking phantasm who foretells a person’s hour of death by surreptitiously leaving letters in the most mundane of hiding places to be subsequently retrieved at the time of their immutable appointment – an impersonal, life-altering communication that alludes to the state’s arbitrary dispensation of deportation and eviction notices in modern day Portugal – Costa illustrates a sense of anonymous interchangeability among the transitory, drifting souls of Tarrafal. Visually, this sense of surrogacy and transplantation is reflected in the repeating angular doorway view of José Alberto’s house: first, in the solitary image of José Alberto facing away from the camera as he sits on a wooden plank to smoke, then subsequently, in a reframed shot of Ventura and Alfredo seated on the same plank looking out into the neighboring town, commenting on the profound transformation of the once desolate landscape (note Alfredo’s humorous misidentification of stray cats as rabbits that further reinforces their seeming interchangeability). Moreover, intrinsic in José Alberto’s sad tale of requesting a work release to single-handedly bury his estranged father, and the rabbit hunters’ conversation over their mistreatment and death at the hands of authorities is the specter of Tarrafal’s unreconciled history as a prison camp where inmates were tortured and relegated to die a slow death. Composed as skewed, frame within frame stationary shots that evoke the acute angles and distanced address of Straub/Huillet, these parallel testimonies of dislocation, separation, entrapment, and fatedness unfold through supplanted images of interchangeable, moribund, drifting ghosts that integrally reflect their own erasure and social invisibility.
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001. Nearly twenty years after Harun Farocki paid homage to the profound influence of Straub/Huillet’s cinema by filming their exhaustive rehearsal process during preparations for the shooting of their film Class Relations for the documentary Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work…, Pedro Costa captures their equally exacting process of editing their feature film, Sicilia! in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?. Indeed, as Farocki’s film intrinsically captures the filmmakers’ working methodology through the framework of his own recurring themes of automation and systemization of processes (even as they apply to the human process of creativity), so, too, does Costa’s film illustrate the particularity of their methodology through his own characteristic preoccupation for capturing the allegorical in the quotidian. Curiously, inasmuch as both films capture the rigorous and deliberative nature of their creative process, it is only through the complementation of both films that the nature of the Straubs’ collaborative process begins to truly emerge – a portrait, not of inequitable roles of visionary and confidante (as implicitly suggested in the Farocki film as Huillet’s role during rehearsals is seemingly reduced to that of advisor and clap board simulator), nor implementer and consultant (as illustrated in the Costa film where Straub is shown to be the intrusive, occasionally tangential, gregarious observer – and comical counterfoil – to the more focused, serious-minded, and methodical Huillet who is editing the film), but rather, as equally creative contemporaries with instinctively defined, yet interactive roles throughout the filmmaking process: one, more conceptual and abstract, the other, more pragmatic and methodical. Ironically, this tumultuous, often colliding process of interactivity itself between theory and application, idea and implementation reflects the complex, yet delicate alchemy of the medium itself, a creative struggle that is articulated by the roguish Straub’s impassioned commentary on the subordination of form over idea in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? that is integral to the realization of their aesthetic.
The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I’ve said that a hundred times. …When someone says, ‘Yes, the form, it’s the form, the form, never mind the idea’, that is a sell-out. It’s not true. You have to see things clearly: First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! …And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter, and the struggle with the matter, gives rise to the form. And the rest is just filling material. …The same goes for the sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, the cracks, all the geological layers in it. He just can’t do whatever he wants.
This intrinsic “struggle with the material” that defines the process of creation also serves as an allusion to the hidden smile of the film’s title. In an illuminating sequence during the editing of a train conversation scene in Sicilia!, Huillet attempts to convey an actor’s unarticulated, knowing smile – an illustration of his realization that a passenger seated across from him lied about the nature of his employment – by finding an appropriate intercutting image from their brief exchange. But how can this uncaptured, hidden smile be revealed when the facial expression itself does not manifest in the any of the shot footage? Poring over each frame in search of the indefinable glint in the actor’s eye in search of that fleeting image that betrays his disbelief to no avail, their strategy is then to abruptly truncate the shot at the final syllable of the passenger’s staccatoed delivery such that the consequence of the lie does not dwell on the prevaricator’s image – and implicitly suggest his deliberation over the ramifications of his own statement – but rather, on the delayed response of the listener to suggest his evaluation (and dismissive deduction) of the passenger’s seemingly incongruous statement. It is this process systematic refinement – a struggle with the intrinsic properties (and inherent limitations) of the given matter to create implication through elision that is also reflected in Straub’s subsequent exposition on the aesthetic evolution of their cinema.
Most of us begin with a cliché – not always, but most of the time – and that’s fine but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of a discovery, showing a mountain without the window, without anything. A torn curtain. Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer’s imagination instead of opening it up and you say to yourself: ‘Yes, after having filmed Mount Thebes in Moses and Aaron, after having filmed Mount Etna, Mount Sainte-Victoire, why add another one?’ And so you renounce slowly. Then one fine day, one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of reduction, only it’s not a reduction – it’s a concentration and it actually says more. But you don’t do that immediately from one day to the next. You need time and patience.
As the filmmakers alternately engage in recounting personal anecdotes, gentle natured marital sparring, and professional ruminations over their collaborative cinema, what emerges in Costa’s reverent and understated portrait is an affectionate, humorous, and indelible image of profound kinship and creative symbiosis – an idiosyncratic, modern-day love story that fuses passion with politics, creativity with conviction – told from the privileged intimacy of irascible, enduring romantics, intellectual peers, social activists, obsessed cinephiles, ageless idealists, and innovative, mutually-inspiring artists.
In Vanda’s Room, 2000. The first image of Vanda’s childhood friend, Nhurro is an insightfully intimate one. On the morning of the scheduled demolition of his home – an abandoned house in the slums of Fonthainas that he had taken over and settled into as his own – Nhurro takes a final, almost ceremonial, thorough scrub down bath in near total darkness in the midst of pounding sledgehammers and approaching heavy machinery, using buckets of ported hot water to rinse off the soap suds in the absence of running water and electricity. Emerging in the shadows from his bath with the steam evaporating from the surface of his skin, Nhurro’s obscured silhouette momentarily appears phantasmagoric and evanescent against the stray rays of light poking through the crumbling walls and covered windows of the barren house, transforming him into an almost spectral, otherworldly figure that is subsequently reframed against a more mundane reality when he awkwardly stumbles from the wet floor while trying to retrieve his clothes from a nearby chair. This metaphysical image proves to be Pedro Costa’s most direct illustration of the marginalized, discarded Fonthainas residents as displaced ghosts in In Vanda’s Room – a theme that would again surface in Colossal Youth and especially Tarrafal) – a manifestation of figurative lost souls drifting from one derelict landscape to another in the wake of the shantytown’s looming, phased demolition, systematic depopulation, and involuntary exile. In an encounter with Vanda that occurs near the end of the film, Nhurro, once again forcibly displaced by advancing bulldozers from his newly claimed “home” (a house that he continues to fastidiously clean until the very end of his brief “tenancy”, perhaps as a symbolic gesture of his human dignity), secretly takes refuge in Vanda’s room for a few days while searching for other intact, abandoned houses to move into, and resignedly tells her of his life in perpetual transience, “living in ghost houses other people left empty.” In a sense, the sad, adrift characters wandering into and out of Vanda’s room are also leading impermanent, yet paradoxically static and inescapable lives in the doomed ghost town.
In Vanda’s Room also anticipates José Luis Guerín’s En Construcción in its untold stories of disposable lives and buried cultures that continue to surface and reassert their inerasable identities from the rubble of area revitalization. Composed of long take, stationary shots, often of cramped interior spaces or narrow alleys framed against neglected building façades, doorways, and even gouged walls that reflect the characters’ economic bondage and spiritual captivity, the film’s oppressive moral landscape and interminable stasis are also revealed through repeating episodes of inarticulate, idle conversations, hardscrabble drug use, door to door peddling, acts of petty theft, and habitual rummaging (most notably, in Vanda finding an antique model ship that had been inadvertently left outside that alludes to the country’s own historical change in fortune from colonial empire to increasingly marginalized country within the economic homogenization of a borderless European Union). But there is also a specter of inevitable change in these uncomfortably intimate moments of destructive (and often self-inflicted) limbo as the remaining residents, too impoverished to move away, await their fate. (In one ironic juxtaposition, the extended image of Vanda resting in an alley with a crate of unsold vegetables is framed against a doorway as the song The Power by Snap! plays in the background.) The news of Nhurro’s newfound residence that is mentioned during Vanda and her sister, Zita’s opening conversation is supplanted by his subsequent eviction from his latest home during the course of the film. In another conversation, the state-enabled, mass eviction of Fonthainas is reflected in the inequitable dispensation of institutional justice over the apparent theft of Knorr soup cubes, where punishment is exacted against the arbitrary measure of human disposability. Perhaps the most emblematic of its systematic cultural extinction lies in the fate of a middle-aged woman named Geny who, early in the film, anxiously stands near the door of her home, having been evicted on the same morning as Nhurro. Raising a faint smile when a neighbor tries to cheer her up with a tongue in cheek offer of cohabitation, the fleeing moment of lightness becomes even more poignant within the context of a passing visitor’s subsequent indirect account of her misfortune. This sobering convergence in Vanda’s room – the evocation of Geny’s faint smile, told by an emphysemic friend who trades a bouquet of flowers for a supply of respiratory medicine, in the room where Vanda and Zita get their heroin fix – powerfully encapsulates the film’s haunted, indelible, and unflinching intimacy: an image of tragic souls hovering aimlessly over their physical captivity, pursuing distractive quests for transitory relief.
Casa de Lava, 1995. The real-life eruption of the Pico volcano in the island of Fogo and the outbreak of cholera in the Cape Verde Islands provide a dense and ingeniously metaphoric contemporary backdrop to Pedro Costa’s exposition on isolation, entrapment, moral inertia, and longing in Casa de Lava. Once an uninhabited Portuguese colony situated off the coast of northwest Africa, Cape Verde’s geographic location was ideally suited to serve as a logistics center for merchant ships traveling westward to America for the slave trade. In Costa’s cinema, this complex history of the islands as a place of involuntary settlement and captivity, as well a waystation for people embarking on journeys into distant lands never to return again, has continued to seep into the present day consciousness of the local population, and is reflected in an introductory montage of the ruggedly impassive residents – composed primarily of women – framed against the austere landscape in the early sequences of the film. The image of repressed violence surfacing through the juxtaposition of the ominous, fluorescent glow of slowly churning lava and the opaque gaze of the villagers is immediately repeated in two connecting episodes to otherwise seemingly unrelated scenes in the Portuguese city of Lisbon: first, in the shot of a somber Cape Verdean migrant worker Leão looking down from the framed opening of an unfinished building that cuts to the shot of the construction office where news of his “accident” sets the worksite into a chaotic scramble for help; the second, in the shot of hospital nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) curiously dowsing her face with a bracing quantity of isopropyl alcohol at the end of her exhausting shift at a coma ward where the gravely injured Leão has been admitted after slipping out of consciousness. A few months later, an anonymously written payment has been dispatched to the hospital in order to cover the cost of sending the still comatose Leão back to Cape Verde after he is inexplicably discharged, and Mariana agrees to accompany her patient as well as facilitate the transfer of medical supplies to the island hospital where an outbreak of cholera has reached epidemic proportions. But the circumstances of Leão’s homecoming prove to be even more complicated. Deposited at a desolate open field by a military transport plane en route to deliver military equipment to a distant war (with an equally nebulous arrangement for a scheduled return date), no one has arrived to welcome Leão home (except for an aging violinist who approaches the abandoned couple with the demeanor of a curious onlooker, but will not verify his actual relationship with the patient), and Mariana is compelled to bring Leão to the hospital for shelter, along with the medical staff’s far more anticipated delivery of medical supplies.
In hindsight, the absence of men in the establishing sequence of Cape Verdean villagers foretells the underlying reality of the elliptical, opening images, a sentiment articulated by the island doctor that soberingly echoes the haunted memory of the country’s slave trading past – that everyone leaves Cape Verde, but no one ever comes back. Indeed, inasmuch as impoverishment has upended the social fabric of the community as able-bodied men leave – and never return – in search of economic opportunity, it has also rended the very idea of family and sense of responsibility. Children are born out of wedlock and neglected by disconnected, self-absorbed, fractured families, emotionally abandoned like the domestic animals that roam the streets (the violinist boasts of 30 children, but cannot even remember the name of his first child), and flagrant transgressions are carried out against each other with virtual impunity from prosecution (a police officer is never seen, even after the theft of medicine in the hospital dispensary and Mariana’s attempted assault at the beach).
Within this environment of perpetual estrangement and isolation, Mariana’s arrival at Cape Verde can also be seen as an existential waystation between life and death, a recurring theme that is reflected in Edith’s (Edith Scob) perpetual mourning of her dead lover, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the village, and Leão’s reluctant (if not resentful) awakening from his coma – a state of waiting for inevitable passage that seemingly continues to fulfill a centuries-old predestiny that had been sealed with the settlement of the village on the abandoned ruins of a slave port and former leper colony. Visually, Costa reflects this sense of metaphysical transience through recurring murky, crepuscular, and eerily otherworldly images of volcanic activity, clandestine encounters, and waves violently crashing against the shore (most notably, during Mariana’s thwarted rape and in Edith’s subsequent tearful discovery of the brutally killed dog that had protected her).
Moreover, through the role of the French émigré and local benefactress Edith – a still grieving woman who once followed her politically exiled lover to Cape Verde and decided to remain on the islands with her aimless son (Pedro Hestnes) long after her lover’s death – Costa also confronts the issues of lawlessness and socio-economic stagnation that continue to plague many contemporary post-colonial African countries towards the end of the twentieth century. Doling out her lover’s pension to ungracious supplicants who swarm around her each month as she retrieves her checks from town in order to plead their case for a handout (not surprisingly, often for a one-way ticket out of the islands), their lopsided relationship is one of disempowerment and parasitic dependency (a sentiment that is also reflected through the villagers’ collective reference to Mariana as their savior when she first arrives to the island with a supply of vaccines to help stem the epidemic). Within this context of a culturally perpetuated neediness, Casa de Lava becomes a trenchant reflection of the broader geopolitical issue of continued post-colonial economic dependence endemic within many third world nations – a situation that is exacerbated by an intrinsic dependency on foreign aid and external charity, coupled with a systematic exodus of the very population who can provide the appropriate skills, innovation, and resources necessary to frame the structure for a self-sustaining economy and provide the social stability to – if not transform – their increasingly fragmented, isolated, and dispossessed communities.
O Sangue, 1989. Perhaps the most overtly Bressonian of Pedro Costa’s body of work (albeit suffused with the brooding shadows of a Jacques Tourneur film), Costa’s first feature nevertheless bears the characteristic imprint of what would prove to be his familiar preoccupations: absent parents, surrogate families, unreconciled ghosts, the trauma and violence of displacement, the ache (and isolation) of longing. The thematic convergence is insightfully revealed in an episode that occurs near the end of the film, when the older brother Vicente (Pedro Hestnes), having been held captive by his father’s nefarious associates on New Year’s Eve in a half-baked attempt to collect his father’s unpaid debt from him, awakens in the darkness of an unfamiliar apartment to the sight of a restless silhouette on the balcony – the shadow cast by his father’s mistress (Isabel de Castro) that has been made spectral and incandescent by the transient glow of exploding fireworks and the sweep of wind against translucent curtains (a sense of otherworldliness that also reinforces a captor’s earlier idea of conducting a séance in order to contact Vincente’s missing father). Costa establishes this sinister atmosphere of sudden, erupted violence in the film’s opening sequence: the prefiguring sound of a slammed door and scurrying feet that subsequently reveals a frontal shot of Vicente on a muddy road as he is suddenly slapped by his wayward father while intentionally blocking his path, trying to prevent him for leaving by imploring him to show consideration towards his younger brother Nino (Nuno Ferreira) who has been left home alone in the middle of night in pursuit of him. Cutting to the image of Vicente riding his scooter through the empty streets at twilight, and subsequently, the schoolteacher, Clara’s (Inês de Medeiros) realization that a student, Rosa (Sara Breia) has run away from school with Nino, the image of dislocation and fugue also becomes a resurfacing idea, a reflection of the characters’ own desire to reinvent and transform in the aftermath of loss that is reflected in Nino’s impulsive attempt to rearrange the furniture, and his subsequent request to similarly dress Vicente in his clothing while accompanying him to school after their father’s disappearance (a longing for change that is also implied in Clara’s selection of a new haircut for Nino). However, when Vicente and Nino’s skeptical uncle (Luís Miguel Cintra) pays a visit and finds the brothers home alone on Christmas Eve with Clara, his heavy-handed, if well-intentioned decision to take Nino away from home and form a new family with his fragile son Pedro (Miguel Fernandes) would lead the brothers into their own journeys of self-discovery in their isolated quest to return to their broken home.
It is interesting to note that in illustrating the brothers’ (as well as Clara’s) subverted attempts at escapism (and figurative erasure) – the persistence of a haunted past (an apparent allusion to Tourneur) that is ingeniously reinforced in the discovery of a body on the lake near the fairgrounds where Vicente and Clara go on a date – Costa introduces the idea of an irrepressible, hidden history that continues to haunt present-day consciousness. Costa expounds on this theme of place as the eternal witness to a deracinated history in evoking Cape Verde’s tragic legacy (as leprosarium and slave port) in the moral contamination of the forgotten residents in Casa de Lava, as well as the concentration camps of Tarrafal (in Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters) that perpetuate a sense of moribund captivity to a contaminated, dying land. Similarly, the contrast between the abandoned, rural family home and the sterile, anonymous apartment buildings where the brothers are held against their will in O Sangue may be seen as a prefiguration of the Fonthainas diaspora itself, from the transitory sanctuary embodied by dilapidated, condemned spaces (In Vanda’s Room), to the soullessness of uprooted communities represented by impersonal, high density, public housing (Colossal Youth). In this respect, Vicente and Nino’s instinctual struggle to escape also represents a moral captivity to a traumatic history, an elusive homecoming that paradoxically embodies both liberation and surrender to the will of fate.
Acquarello, 2006-2008 [reprinted]