To say that Pedro Costa is one of the world's greatest filmmakers might sound like a provocation. But I have said it and will repeat it: Pedro Costa is one of the world's greatest filmmakers, and there's nothing willfully perverse in my statement. What follows are initial notes toward understanding why Costa matters. Final judgment is left up to the audience to whom this director yields so much and should only follow from seeing his films. Watching Costa's work gives me the chills; it's a most mysterious, unusual, and unclassifiable oeuvre, one littered with ghosts of the past and the present.
From the first frame of each Costa film, it's apparent we're in the company of that rare filmmaker who simply cares about people: about who his subjects are, about what they're feeling and thinking, and just as crucially, what his viewers are thinking about them. Each work is riddled with enticing close-ups, and Costa's pictorial attention (coming out of a sensibility equally at home with European fine art as, say, the dust bowl photography of Walker Evans) is a constant wonder. The subjects are for the most part the downtrodden inhabitants of a Lisbon, Portugal, slum called Fontaínhas, people literally overlooked by dominant cultures. He's not trying to rub their misery in his viewers' faces calling him a "Straubian neorealist," to quote J. Hoberman, is misleading; if anything, his films, with their rejection of rational structures, are more neosurrealist. Rather, the progression in Costa's cinema has been to give voice to his subjects and to treat them as worthy of existing as fictional characters (Bones, 1997); then, to delve further into their world, their personalities, and their ways of living (In Vanda's Room, 2000); and most recently, with great success, to combine the two approaches (Colossal Youth, 2006).
Costa finds richness in small variations, and his evolution has led to a narrowing of both subject matter and spatial exploration. Costa has retreated from the wide-open, Monument Valleyesque volcanic surface of Cape Verde to interiors; the benefit of seeing 1994's Down to Earth is in realizing how Costa's characters must now feel, cramped in their disheveled surroundings. Combined with his movement toward a long-take style, this signals a shift from a cinema of space to a cinema of time. A parallel trend is an attempt to redefine beauty in cinematic terms from the exquisite monochrome 35mm of The Blood (1989) to the grubby, purposeful digital video of In Vanda's Room and its staggeringly unique use (aided by Costa's remarkable compositional eye) in Colossal Youth. Likewise, few contemporary filmmakers are as concerned with the juxtaposition of image and soundtrack, and each of Costa's films reveals new ways of seeing and hearing: in Colossal Youth, the sound is a better narrative guide than the visuals making long takes a necessity.
Yet the more these movies seem to be within one's grasp, the more they slip away from comprehension. Costa seems to be saying the same thing about life today: he portrays the outside world as a labyrinth and the domestic arena as a much-needed shelter. He's surely something of a Brechtian modernist (with Jean-Luc Godard as perhaps an even greater influence than Jean-Marie Straub), yet it's tempting to assign the modifier post in order to understand Costa's work. His persistent interrogation of the ways in which people live is certainly postYasujiro Ozu. And as Jeff Wall has noted, Costa can also be considered post-Bressonian in that he improves on what some find problematic about the master's later works namely, Robert Bresson's tendency to turn his models into intense abstractions. Costa corrects this by allowing disorder, the uncleanliness of the real world.