There's no place like home

Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth digs up life amid the ruins

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In his recent book Poor People, William T. Vollmann writes, "For me, poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable." Despite the enormity of such a disclaimer, Vollmann attempts to calibrate a calculus of misery. Portuguese director Pedro Costa seems motivated by a similarly conflicted impetus. Over the past decade, Costa has made a trilogy of films with the working poor of Fontainhas, a sprawling slum outside Lisbon. Trading Vollmann's pained self-consciousness for a meticulous formalism that favors rehearsal over reportage, Costa's remove sets into relief the humanity of his subjects, rather than objectifying or patronizing them.

Many of Fontainhas's residents are of Cape Verdean descent. That country's wretched history - as an exploited colony and the center of the Portuguese slave trade - looms large in the collective memory of Fontainhas, as if stained into the walls of its dilapidated tenements and etched across the beaten visages of its inhabitants. It is a legacy of continual disenfranchisement, displacement, and enforced invisibility, which tentatively approaches a terminus with the trilogy's final installment, Colossal Youth.

Whittled down from roughly 300 hours of footage to just over two, Colossal Youth is a desultory, snail-paced compilation of everyday interactions and fragmentary conversations that skirts the edges of documentary. Costa's long, static shots mirror the rhythms of the characters' daily lives - getting high (or taking drugs to get off drugs), scavenging, day laboring, and speaking in perpetuum of possibilities that will forever remain unfulfilled. It is an existence made all the more precarious by the fact that Fontainhas is being razed and its inhabitants relocated to a new, antiseptic public housing complex that's even farther removed from Lisbon, a process that was happening as Costa filmed.

At the center of this dispossessed community is Ventura, a retired laborer who, like many of Costa's leads, is presumably playing a variation of himself. Recently abandoned by his wife - an event that forms Colossal Youth's haunting, elliptical two-shot prologue - Ventura spends the rest of the film alternately airing his grief and acting as a father figure to a succession of interlopers: old neighborhood friends, former colleagues, acquaintances, and extended family members both biological and adopted.

These include Vanda, a recovering drug addict (the titular character of Costa's 2000 film, In Vanda's Room) who ambivalently calls Ventura "Papa" and awkwardly approaches her new role as mother with a fidgety uncertainty; an estranged daughter still living amid the rubble of Fontainhas; a government housing agent equally amused and annoyed by Ventura's vague requirements for his new home (when asked how many children will be accompanying him, Ventura replies, "I don't know yet"); and an illiterate migrant worker who enlists Ventura to write a letter to his beloved, which he continually recites as though it were scripture.

With his shock of gray hair, threadbare suit, and stoic gaze that seems perpetually transfixed by something beyond our vantage point, Ventura shuffles between the crepuscular ruins of Fontainhas and the blindingly white interiors of his future residence like an ineffectual ghost, reluctant to admit that he has to some extent become a spectral remainder of the very past that haunts him.

Costa's architectonic framing of Ventura - which favors low angles and makes startling use of the play of natural light across the film's many mottled surfaces - no less contributes to this impression.

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