A few quick notes about Pedro Costa’s 1997 film, Bones (“Ossos”), which I’ve seen twice in the last week.
A vivid setting: the Fontainhas district of Lisbon, a slum populated by Cape Verdean immigrants. A young woman becomes a mother and can’t or won’t take care of her baby. Without the mother’s permission, the father takes the baby out of the slum and into the city. But the lead character in the film is neither the mother nor the father but a housecleaning woman, Clotilde, played by Costa regular Vanda Duarte. The actors are nonprofessionals that Costa found living in poverty in that neighborhood.
Bones is the first film of a loose trilogy. In the second film, In Vanda’s Room (2000), Duarte plays herself, a heroin addict. Much of that three-hour film takes place in her ten-foot-square room, and is shot on DV. Soon afterwards, the Fontainhas neighborhood was demolished, and the residents relocated by the government to a low-income housing project. The third film, Colossal Youth, deals with this displacement. It shows next week in Toronto.
Bones is both documentary (‘real’ people living in ‘real’ settings) and fiction (it’s carefully scripted and rehearsed). The Fontainhas homes are underlit, with cracked walls painted in severely faded green and blue. Clotilde works cleaning houses in a far-away middle-class neighborhood, where the walls are white, and the homes are brightly lit. Ironic: Clotilde—and her physical features, her clothes, her gestures—are more clearly visible to us in these homes of privilege than in her own dingy bedroom and kitchen.
The movie is aggressively elliptical. The assembling of the film seems to be based on some private, enigmatic logic. The cuts sometimes seem like non-sequiturs, as if they were connecting nodes (shots) in an open diagram. J. Hoberman on Costa: “a Straubian neorealist.” Mark Peranson on Costa: “a neo-surrealist.”
There are extended shots of characters still and posed that seem like acts of portraiture. In their frontal compositions of blank and expressionless faces and bodies, they are reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Also, because of the long takes and temps morts, Andy Warhol’s screen tests.
Andy Rector at Kinoslang has posted a transcript of a talk given by Costa in Japan to film students. It's a tremendous read, all 10,000+ words of it. I culled a few favorite bits:
[S]ometimes in the cinema, it's just as important not to see, to hide, as it is to show.
For me, the primary function of cinema is to make us feel that something isn't right.
Bones ends exactly like Mizoguchi's film Street of Shame (1956, Akasen-chitai), that is to say, there's a girl who closes a door and who looks at you, and the door is closed on you. That means that you can't enter this film.
I believe that today, in the cinema, when we open a door, it's always quite false, because it says to the spectator: "Enter this film and you're going to be fine, you're going to have a good time," and finally what you see in this genre of film is nothing other than yourself, a projection of yourself. You don't see the film, you see yourself.
Never in my life have I thought: am I making documentary? Am I making a fiction, and what are the ways to make one or the other? They don't exist. We film life, and the more I close the doors, the more I hinder the spectator from taking pleasure in seeing himself on the screen - because I don't want that - the more I close the doors, the more I'm going to have the spectator against me, perhaps against the film, but at least he will be, I hope, uncomfortable and at war. That is, he will be in the uneasy situation of the world. It's not good if one is at ease all the time.
For Bresson to say what he wants to say, then, it's not necessary to use metaphors, MacGuffins, or stage tricks. He goes right to the point, in a very concrete manner. He's very much in the world. This is a very concrete working of the sound and image. Without metaphors, there are only sounds and images. Bresson doesn't use the means of the horror film, or the Western, or whatever, to tell us something, because the horror film, it's already a highly coded form, full of little things that must be done to tell a story. For these reasons, I admire, even more than that, I really like Jacques Tourneur, because he had to do horror films and detective films and Westerns, in order to say the same thing that Bresson says to us. That's difficult, poor guy. He has an idea, I believe it's the same idea that the world is not right, that there's evil, and that we can communicate this idea, and he has to make a horror film to convey this idea. I really admire Jacques Tourneur, because he makes very beautiful things, with a sort of eternity. The themes of Tourneur's films are always important, are still relevant today.
All of this is to say that we can use the cinema to represent things in two very different ways. In Hollywood, we can make highly fictional, adventuresome stories that say exactly the same thing that Bresson says without the same artifice, without needing to use effects. Yet, we can equally love Bresson and Tourneur, even if they stand for two totally different ways of representing the world.
[Bresson] shows our world, and at the same time it appears strange, this world. It's odd how people move in Bresson's films. They walk strangely, their gestures are very fast or very slow. That's the work. It's our world, and at the same time it's very abstract. Cinema is not exactly life. It works with the ingredients of life and you organize, construct these ingredients in a manner different from life. We're going to see them in a different light. It's not life, but at the same time, it's made using the elements of life, which is something very mysterious and sometimes quite beautiful.
Here's a recently posted Acquarello review of Pedro Costa's Straub/Huillet documentary Where Has Your Hidden Smile Gone?