At the Toronto Film Festival last year, Reverse Shot’s Canadian correspondents were thoroughly abuzz about a new film from Portugal that had premiered (somewhat controversially) a few months prior at Cannes: Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth. I didn’t see the film then, and didn’t learn much about it at the time other than the fact that it was fairly lengthy and actively resisted dominant narrative modes. The folks at CinemaScope were so impressed that it gave the film a mock Napoleon Dynamite cover that read: “Vote For Pedro (Costa, That Is)” and even went so far as to make T-shirts bearing the same. (Never let it be said that a cinephile a savvy marketer makes.)
Somewhat unexpectedly, the film turned up for a few showings this past weekend at the Harvard Film Archive. Not an ideal venue for lengthy evenings (I barely made it out of my seat after Out 1: Spectre a few weeks ago), I settled in with little knowledge besides the aforementioned, and that the work at 155 minutes was boiled down from something like 32-hours of video shot in an area of Lisbon slums with non-professional actors.
The first shot is immediately compelling: a simple view of a few shanty-houses stacked uneasily together; in the eerie light of DV blown-up to 35mm, it looks almost like a set built in miniature. Furniture begins flying from a second-story window to crash on the courtyard below. After a few minutes of destruction, Costa cuts to a completely different space where a woman brandishes a knife at an unseen antagonist as she delivers a portentous, vitriolic, monologue. It’s not until after she’s finished and we’re onto the next shot that we meet Costa’s protagonist, Ventura, our avatar through the slums of Colossal Youth.
A striking, elderly man in a dark suit, Ventura plays “papa” to a host of local characters, many of them on and off of drugs, all borderline impoverished, and all, in Costa’s hands strikingly eloquent. The narrative, such as it is, doesn’t really move so much as it commences, happens, and then ends, jumping through times and locations with ease—I bet with a second viewing I might be able to discern more coherence, but I may never get the chance. There are some changes: Ventura heals from an injury, upgrades his lodgings after his slum is bulldozed (a real-life occurrence), and a toddler born to a drug addicted mother dies. Even with these “progressions” the whole enterprise seems to drift inexorably to the entropic.
I’d never thought to use “drab” as anything but a pejorative, but something about Costa’s commitment to the squalor is admirable here, and it makes those moments where he places his characters in abstractions (Ventura and his new landlord framed entirely by whiteness) more memorable. Costa’s refusal to push a narrative forward strikes me as uber-Bressonian: here the exchange rate between shots (nearly broken at times in Bresson) is completely nullified—everything is equal, all the movie’s component parts could (and probably are) happening at the same, or any time.
It’s a radical gesture, and one that I appreciate, but I can’t help thinking that this kind of radical aesthetic treads on that line between genius and emperor’s new clothes for many…at least I can’t see Colossal Youth winning over scads of viewers (Costa’s ok with this—the inevitable walkouts are part of his planned viewing experience). It’s definitely more than worthy of further discussion and argument, and one of the more singular films I’ve seen in ages. Just putting together this little entry on it has led me much further down the road of loving it. Anyone else seen Colossal Youth?