Letters From Fontainhas may be one of the Criterion Collection’s lowest-selling releases in some time. It shouldn’t be, but even for the niche market that Criterion caters to, this four-disc box set of films from Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa is fairly esoteric — Costa isn’t widely known among American film fans and the sheer extensiveness of this collection requires jumping in with both feet.
All that withstanding, Letters From Fontainhas is an essential Criterion release, and a perfect example of why cinephiles love the label. In a month where they’ve released new high-def editions of well-known and loved film classics like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro and Malick’s Days of Heaven, Criterion also gives us a lavish introduction to a director who has never even had a film released in a commercial theater in the United States, according to Dave Kehr. That’s a brand of daring entirely antithetical to most models of film and DVD distribution today, and the small band of consumers who take advantage of it will be greatly rewarded.
Costa’s trilogy takes a close look at the deteriorating Lisbon neighborhood of Fontainhas, an area that no longer exists and literally crumbles away as Costa’s films progress. Released in 1997, 2000 and 2006, these three films not only reveal the progression of a neighborhood, but of Costa’s entire conception of filmmaking. Whereas the first film, Ossos, was shot traditionally on 35mm with a sizable crew and a distinctly recognizable art cinema aesthetic, the two subsequent works, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, saw Costa jettison the crew, pick up a DV cam and delve deeply into a tangible location intimately captured.
The two latter films indisputably feature some of the greatest visual achievements that digital video has ever produced, and have to be considered cornerstones of the still-fledgling medium. They reveal Costa as an impeccable artist, able to frame a shot with indelible precision and equally skilled at exploiting the supposed shortcomings of digital video to create images of viscerally shocking beauty.
Ossos opens the trilogy with a story of a pair of new parents barely able to accept the challenges of their own lives, much less a new one. The mother is suicidal; the father takes the baby with him to visit a prostitute, sets it underneath the bed and later attempts to sell it to the hooker.
The picaresque structure of Ossos leaves it plenty of room to give us glimpses of the other residents of Fontainhas — shadowy and often enigmatic figures that are ostensibly ancillary components, but are perhaps more what the film is about than the loosely unfolding plot. Chief of these figures is Clotilde, friend of the mother and played by Vanda Duarte, who appears in all three films of the trilogy and acts as another bond between them.
Costa describes Ossos as a loud film on the disc’s supplements, and it’s the aural raucousness — often abrupt — that stands out, particularly combined with the languishing, medium-shot camerawork of Robert Bresson collaborator Emmanuel Machuel. The sound is that of a neighborhood echoing with the sounds of life, dilapidated as it and the lives of its residents may be.
By the time we get to In Vanda’s Room three years later, the sounds have changed, and even though that’s hardly the most noticeable difference between this film and its predecessor, it’s a telling one. The exterior soundscape is dominated by the noise of construction vehicles tearing the neighborhood down. Costa gives us a few shots of crumbling walls, but it’s the noise that wears on us.
Vanda Duarte from Ossos is indeed the titular Vanda, and any conception of her as an “actress” — non-professional or otherwise — evaporates here. One would be forgiven for assuming In Vanda’s Room is a documentary, both because of its vérité visuals and the rawness of its subjects. In the strictest sense, In Vanda’s Room is not a documentary, but Costa’s camera does spend a great deal of time inside Vanda’s bedroom where she smokes heroin all day long with her sister Zita. These are not characters and these are not manufactured situations.
Costa’s barebones approach to the production lends the film an astonishingly intimate feel, like he’s burrowed not just inside the collapsing homes of the residents of Fontainhas, but inside their beings. The film’s pace — interminable would not be wholly inaccurate — and nearly three-hour length can be daunting, but the beauty of many of Costa’s compositions, both human and architectural, are rewarding in the midst of an experience that certainly isn’t intended to be entirely pleasurable.