Can’t believe this is on netflix streaming… at least it has an absurdly low rating, so some things still make sense. Of course I expected to like it more myself, having enjoyed Colossal Youth, but maybe after The Assassin two hours of murky stasis wasn’t the best choice. It’s difficult to watch, but unlike The Assassin and Hors Satan, the more I think and read about it afterwards, the more fascinating it becomes.

Ventura moves slowly, his hands shaking, talking to ghosts. His nephew spends years at an abandoned factory, waiting to get paid. Vitalina reads aloud from letters and government documents. Finally, a stone-faced ghost-of-christmas-past revolutionary soldier locks Ventura in an elevator until the movie mercifully ends.

Maybe I need to surrender my Cinema Scope subscription and go back to watching Puppet Master sequels? Whether that’s true, I definitely need to not watch streaming movies anymore. It killed me that I messed up the audio track when transferring The Assassin to the downstairs TV so the ever-present wind noise sounded staticky, but that’s nothing compared to the horrors netflix wreaked upon the inky black images of Horse Money.

M. Sicinski:

The Fontainhas films have become progressively forward and discursive about certain aspects of their intellectual make-up (especially the colonial histories between Portugal and Cape Verde) that were largely submerged in Bones, and wholly implicit in In Vanda’s Room. These social and political questions, particularly as they intersect with race, rebellion, and personal trauma, emerged in fairly evident ways in Colossal Youth, although some viewers may still have been confused (or merely put off) by Costa’s choice to expound these issues through poetry and incantation rather than conventional dialogue … Much of Horse Money consists of Ventura navigating a hospital stay, and his depressive, somnambulistic behavior connotes several things at once: traumatized memory, historical burden, as well as the creep of disorientation or dementia. But above all, Costa stages Ventura’s performance and “presence” as being fundamentally out of joint with contemporary lived time. This is a man who hovers between present and past, serving as an avatar for events and experiences that (as per Faulkner’s infamous dictum) are not even past.

Costa’s interview in Cinema Scope is fantastic:

It was a very difficult film to make, very devastating. [Ventura] shook a lot. He really is sick and ill and he really tries to remember, and trying to remember is not the best thing. So I think we did this film to forget, actually. Some people say they make films to remember, I think we make films to forget. This is really to forget, to be over with, and I hope the next film will be a good thing.

Costa on his digital camera:

It’s much more difficult to get anything that looks interesting at all because you have to fight against so much stupid stuff that’s put inside the cameras, and you feel it when you go inside the cinema, if it’s not Lav Diaz or Béla Tarr or Godard or Straub or something, everything’s the same. And it’s not their fault, but at the same time you should fight a little bit against that.

“It’s no use now. The letter will never reach Cape Verde.”

From the second scene it’s more theatrical/less documentary than In Vanda’s Room, which is a welcome change to me. Not coincidentally, I enjoyed it a hundred times more than Vanda. The Straubs would call me a stupid escapist, but I prefer having some sense of narrative and mystery over watching dudes shoot up and listening to Vanda cough for three hours.

“Bete, your mother’s gone. She doesn’t love me anymore.” Ventura’s wife has left him, after smashing up the house and wrecking all his clothes, and he wanders the neighborhood, forlorn, visiting his children and talking with friends, reminiscing and flashing-back, and worrying about the future, meeting with a realtor to select a new white apartment in the anonymous new complex. Or is any of that true? By the end we’re not sure if Ventura had any children – if the younger adults he talks with (including Vanda) are truly related or just friends and acquaintances.

Vanda is doing alright, on methadone and married to a very supportive man, with a young daughter, although her mother is dead and her sister Zita kills herself halfway through the film, so everything’s not rosy. In an eleven-minute shot she talks about giving birth and learning to turn her life around (and she doesn’t cough anymore), with references to suicide-by-gas since Costa loves to reference his earlier works. Ventura himself sports a white-bandaged head in the second half, seeming to parallel Isaach De Bankolé in Casa de Lava.

Speaking of which, Ventura recites a letter featured in Casa de Lava many times throughout the movie, uses it as a personal mantra and tries to get his friend Lento to memorize it. Lento, it turns out, is probably dead, making me wonder just how much of the story is only in Ventura’s head. This unreliable story and character made me so much more interested and invested in the movie than I was in Vanda, or even Ossos. Similar camera work to those, although the camera does move in this one, more of Costa’s strict rules disappearing.

My birds liked the movie too, or at least they noticed it. The pet birds (finches?), heard but not seen in Vanda’s house, drove them nuts.

The original title was Juventude Em Marcha (“Youth on the March”, a revolutionary slogan and once the title of a 1950’s televangelist program), and the English title is Colossal Youth (once the title of a Young Marble Giants album). Funny, all the “youth” since there’s barely any youth in the movie (Vanda’s daughter). You could count the housing development – it’s “colossal” and new – but that’s not what the original title would be referencing. I listened to the Y.M.G. album for clues but I wasn’t smart enough to draw any connections, except that the title similarity was probably intentional. If Costa enjoys early Wire, he surely likes this too.

Ventura in Vanda’s room:

T. Gallagher:

Costa’s lines are sometimes flat, delivered in short bursts, and often elliptical and inscrutable, like the dialogue in Antonioni’s English-language movies – another challenge to the spectator. Yet, nonetheless, we can feel a Straub-like sensuality of people infusing the space around them deeply, overwhelming it with their vibes, even when they are merely visiting somewhere. Indeed, in Colossal Youth, even when Ventura leaves a shot, he is still there, somehow.

Ventura lives partly in fantasy, which Costa makes real: past and present co-exist, the dead live, Lento dies twice, walls have creatures on them, things don’t connect. Ventura’s wife, he says, “had Clothide’s face but it wasn’t her”. Nor, in Colossal Youth, do doors always connect, for neither the Housing Agent nor Ventura. “I’ve been having this nightmare for more than thirty years”, says Ventura. “Anxiety tormented me night after night. I used to get [the door] wrong all the time. I’d come back drunk from work and collapse into a strange bed. All doors looked the same back then.”

Costa: “One can imagine that Ventura is a double character. On one hand, we see him looking at young people, and on the other there is someone who isn’t he, who lives in the past, who could be a brother or someone else, his double. Ventura’s companion who plays cards, Lento, is Ventura when young. The same, with a bit of past, a bit of future.”

Watching the ghosts in the walls:

I can’t find Mark Peranson’s long interview with Costa regarding Colossal Youth anywhere in my pile of Cinema Scope issues, but in an earlier article he calls it a “Rivettian narrative, with possible unmotivated flashbacks, probable ghosts, and drawn-out scenes that appear improvised (some may be, but considering that Costa rehearsed and re-rehearsed, then shot a total of 320 hours over 15 months, with each scene having as many as 30 takes, I expect that the words were carefully chosen). … Ventura’s haunted mien is that of the living dead; the zombies are walking again.”

Also watched two related shorts, although I couldn’t psych myself into watching the third.

Tarrafal
Faster editing than the last three features, but it tricks you since the first half of the movie is all one shot (interrupted once by a title card). Jose talks with his mom about returning to Cape Verde for a long time, then he runs into Ventura. Ventura takes over the movie, conversing with dead friend Alfredo. Movie ends with an official notice saying Jose is to be deported, pinned to a wooden post with a knife.

The Rabbit Hunters
Ventura and Alfredo each wake up on the streets in the new housing projects, which are already covered with graffiti. They go about having some of the same conversations as in Tarrafal (it’s re-edited from some of the same footage), running into Jose and again ending on the deportation notice. Guess it was overkill to watch both of these the same day.

Jose in Tarrafal:

Ventura and Alfredo in The Rabbit Hunters:

Alfredo in both:

“You can’t trust cinema” – Straub

Costa brings his In Vanda’s Room minimalist shooting style into the editing room where Straub and Huillet are working on Sicilia!. I thought it sounded like a bore, but liked it a lot, surely more than Vanda itself. Guess I was interested in the process of it, and in rethinking Sicilia and learning about the filmmakers – the documentary aspect more than Costa’s aesthetic work, though seeing something so similar in look to Vanda made me reconsider Costa’s style too. So, a lot to think about, though I’m not sure about it being “maybe the best movie ever made about making movies” (Senses of Cinema possibly quoting Thom Andersen).

Huillet (below) is the quiet one, doing her work while Straub showboats and pontificates, talks about destroying truth, calls a matching shot “the most idiotic thing in filmmaking,” and quotes favorite films of his (of theirs). They take their editing job very seriously – Costa says they completed five cuts a day. They stop to screen and introduce some films, including The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, for a meager group of students, part of the deal they made to get free editing time at a university. Seems to be a documentary made for and by people who need no introduction to these filmmakers; an advanced course in their methods and personality. Funny that Costa points out his own sound design in this doc as “completely fake, anti-Straubian.”

More choice Straub quotes:

“Some people have the impression – because we reject verisimilitude and TV-style cinema, Dallas and all that shit, and even Woody Allen and Cassavetes, etc., that there is no psychology in our films. But that’s not true. All this is psychology. There is no psychology in terms of the performance of the actor because there is a dramatic abstraction that goes deeper than so-called verisimilitude. But it’s there, in between the shots, in the very montage and in the way the shots are linked to each other, it is extremely subtle psychology.”

“When you make films, you try not to say stupid things. You work hard to avoid them. You destroy cliches, go back, correct, abandon or add things. And then, in real life, you do talk nonsense. You end up destroying some of the work you do and the films you made.

“You cannot expect form before the idea.”
“First there is the idea. Then there is the matter and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that!”

Interlacing! Surly women argue over heroin. Nhurro takes a shower. Vanda sells lettuce. Bunch of one-shot scenes, disconnected from each other – I mean, they’re in the same neighborhood with some regular characters, but one doesn’t narratively follow the last. Sometimes the movie seems to be challenging me not to watch it, like when a man with a needle in his arm compares awful blood-clot stories with a friend, or when a girl will not stop scraping a tabletop with a razor.

S. Hasumi: “All of Pedro Costa’s shots have a vertical power that breaks the viewer free from the story’s linear cause and effect. The pleasure of exposure to that liberation has, ever since F.W. Murnau, been a privilege allowed only to film.”

It’s Carrefour!

Caught references to Cape Verde and to a woman who either sold, killed or abandoned her baby (the story is not well remembered – nothing around here is). Other than that, no Jacques Tourneur film-love or even a Wire bootleg on a boombox, just pure miserable reality. Of course it’s not exactly reality, as pointed out by the commentary – shots are staged, there were retakes, dialogue was thought out before the scene.

More than two hours in, Soon after the girls talk about their childhood in this neighborhood, when drugs weren’t around, or at least were better hidden, the song “Memories” is playing on a TV, cutting after the line “I remember the time I knew what happiness was.” What, is the movie belatedly remembering that it’s a movie? I didn’t enjoy the first half, thought it was getting worse, then felt increasing sympathy for it during the final hour.

Cyril Neyrat sees revolution while I struggle to stay awake and not to get annoyed:

Costa bought a Panasonic DV and went to Fontainhas alone, every day. Vanda and Zita had invited him into their room: “Come, you’ll see what our lives are really like. You used to ask us to be quiet; now we’re going to talk, you’re going to listen. That’s all we do, talk and take drugs.” Over six months, alone with his DV camera, a mirror he found on-site, and cobbled-together reflectors, Costa reinvented his cinema: facing the bed, he looked for frames and strove to master the light that came in through a single tiny window, as in a Dutch painting … After the six months, a sound engineer came to lend a hand from time to time. He recorded the girls’ speech, the murmur of Fontainhas, the sounds of the bulldozers and the mechanical diggers tearing the condemned neighborhood’s houses down one by one. The miracle of In Vanda’s Room is that of a new agreement between the world and the film, of a recovered equality between the two sides of the camera.

Costa reinvented a solitary, craftsmanlike cinema, operating at the pace of everyday life: going into the neighborhood each morning, looking, working, doing nothing, picking from the stream of life and energy flowing before the camera something that might give rise to a scene. And then repeat it, do it over—up to twenty times—until the beauty and the intellectual and imaginary power of a sculpted reality made dense and musical are revealed. With In Vanda’s Room, Costa strips cinema bare, but far from wallowing in an aesthetic poverty that would add to the humiliation of the underprivileged of Fontainhas, he rediscovers in this subtraction the aura of the great primitive and classic cinemas, and their ability to reveal and celebrate the beauty of the world, the beauty of sounds and colors, of a ray of light passing through shutters to illuminate three bottles set on a wood table.

“It looks like a film, it is a film in some sort of way,” opens Pedro defensively in the DVD commentary, before proceeding to tell us about the difficult sound work they did in post-production. “It’s a bit pretentious but the ambition with Vanda in sound, image, everything, was to recompose, offer, unveiling the secret that really doesn’t exist, going against the cinema-machine…” it’s a rambling commentary, but it’s a three-hour movie so there’s no hurry. It rambled me straight to sleep, twice in the first hour, so I finally gave up halfway through.

I began to watch this, trying to remember what the filmmaker said about a song he misused in the film, but all I could think of was the magic Rolling Stones LP in Royal Tenenbaums that plays two songs in a row which never appear in that order. Then I hear a Rage Against The Machine song in the background of Ossos, so I thought about that for a while. Then gradually I realized there’s a movie playing and I should pay attention, but it was still a while before I figured out what’s going on.

Basically, this is the direction I’d feared Costa’s movies would take, after reading a bit about his career and watching the other two. It’s L’enfant with better camerawork (that’s good!) and slowed down (that’s bad). Nuno Vaz (we’ll call him Nuno – IMDB doesn’t know his name either) eventually comes home to check on his girl Tina and their new baby, but she decides to gas herself in the living room, and he lays down oblivious to sleep. She wakes up and saves him, instead of vice versa. Or I think that’s what happens. Tina (actress Mariya Lipkina) helps her sister Clothilde (non-actress Vanda Duarte) as a house cleaner. So Nuno goes off to sell the baby and/or use the baby to elicit sympathy from passers-by to get money/food while Tina turns on the gas at her employer’s place and tries again to kill herself.

Mostly static camera setups (and of course the celebrated minutes-long tracking shot of Nuno walking with the baby in a trash bag) showing suicidal, baby-selling poor people – not my thing. But it gets better. And the music bit finally comes when Tina blasts a killer live version of Wire’s “Lowdown”, Costa’s problem in hindsight being that her character wouldn’t actually have the access or inclination to obtain Wire bootlegs in the slums of Lisbon. Costa: “Definitely they didn’t all listen to Wire. What was playing all the time was hip hop, rap or Metallica and Pantera, things that I will never put in my films. So I brought the CD first to the community, and I played the track “Lowdown” before the shoot, and everyone who heard it wanted a copy of the CD. After that, they all had CDs of Wire and the Buzzcocks.”

Ines:

Anyway, Nuno seems to be pretty helpless – Clothilde is the strong one of the trio. Nuno is feeding his baby like a bird, pre-chewing its food, when it’s taken away from him and sent to the hospital. He hangs out with a nurse who wanted to help (Nurse Eduarda: Isabel Ruth, in bunches of Oliveira films), stays in her apartment, but gets surly when he’s offered too much, still got his pride. Eduarda meets the girls through Nuno, and I think has sex with Clothilde’s husband while excitedly slumming in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, Nuno tries again to sell the baby, this time to local prostitute Ines de Medeiros (returning from the last two movies). Clothilde eventually catches Nuno sleeping (without the baby), turns on the gas and leaves, possibly murdering him.

Clothilde’s husband with Nurse Eduarda:

More weirdness: the girl with strong eyebrows from Casa de Lava, whose real name is Clotilde, shows up as a neighbor. Eduarda has her privacy (until she starts handing out apartment keys to everyone she meets) but the slum dwellers do not – Clothilde is having sex with her husband when Tina shows up at the open window over their heads to visit. And Nuno keeps lying to the girls, telling them the baby is gone, that it’s dead.

Ossos played in Venice along with Chinese Box and Zhang Yimou’s Keep Cool, but Takeshi’s Fireworks took the prize, although this won best cinematography for D.P. Emmanuel Machuel (returning from Casa de Lava). I warmed up to it, eventually digging the mystery, the characters’ shifting connections, and the sweet camerawork – all things Costa would work to eliminate from his next movie, damn him.

Inexactly quoting Costa from his English-language interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin, about his early, mostly discarded script for Ossos: “I felt that I should start with my feelings, not their feelings, even if these feelings are very obscure, very dark. It was my feelings about that place, things that had to do with my sensibility, political things, moral things, observation. So I didn’t have the dialogue for this film, and for that, I needed time.” He mentions Cloverfield at one point, which threw me, unable to keep the idea of Cloverfield and Ossos in my head at the same time.

In the DVD extras, Jeff Wall talks about the unknowability of the main characters, points out minor actors who open up the film’s world, and discusses parallels to Bresson. A very useful little essay, the one extra that most convinced me that I might want to watch this movie again sometime.

Joao Benard da Costa:

Whereas Pedro Costa’s two previous films were liquid works, referencing blood and lava, this one, with its very title, ushers us into a new reality, precisely the one that gave the film its title: Bones. Pedro Costa has said somewhere “Bones are the first thing one sees of bodies,” and indeed without bones the body would not exist. It would collapse. Yet bones are also the last part of the body to perish. … Whereas flesh is a luxury, a pleasure – hence the so-called “pleasures of the flesh” – bones are what you throw to the dogs. Bones are what animals gnaw at, what remains, the tough part. This film, which is extremely tough, is a film about toughness itself. … But this film by no means wallows in misery. It couldn’t be further from a pessimistic film. It isn’t even an offshoot of neorealism, or even a realist film where we observe the poor and feel sorry for them. On the contrary, here we find people with a startling sense of dignity and a remarkable toughness, an almost tangible grit.

Opens with low-light shots of lava. Close-ups of thickly eyebrowed women! From the start it’s cutting faster than O Sangue. The color isn’t as self-consciously gorgeous as the black-and-white in the other movie but we still get some heavy shot compositions and strange moments.

Construction worker Leao (the intimidating Isaach De Bankolé of Limits of Control) fell, putting himself in a 2-month coma. The hospital got an anonymous letter along with a check, so he is discharged to fly home to Cape Verde, joined by nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros of O Sangue). She stays a few days, is almost raped on the beach, saved by a dog.

Edith (Scob, of Summer Hours, Comedy of Innocence) is the local white woman and owner of the dog. Her son (Pedro Hestnes, star of O Sangue but unrecognizable to me) is confrontational to Mariana. A boy named Tano, possibly Mariana’s attacker, maybe kills the dog? Leao finally wakes up, his first words being “my land.” A grey-haired local guy named Bassoe plays the violin, as Mariana glows in the sunset, falling more in love with this island. But many scenes are in very low light, relationships and plot points are undefined, and the movie is becoming more oblique into the second half.

Connections! Edith’s friend says “juventude em marcha!” (the original title of Colossal Youth), and when Mariana asks Leo to “try to remember something,” his first word is “sangue.”

Tano is drunk? How old is he, anyway? Is Leao the son of the violinist? Didn’t Bassoe say he was going to Portugal – why is he still here? Why is Mariana? I started to find it all more annoyingly frustrating than deliciously mysterious, but apart from the plot I enjoyed the visual experience until the end.

Fred Patton: “An arsenal of symbolism, audio-visual disjunction, and insinuating edits work to paint a portrait of the social landscape.”

R. Brody: “a politically savvy homage to Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 horror film, I Walked with a Zombie, in which postcolonial decay is invested with both metaphysical and erotic allure.”

I’d heard about the Zombie connection, and so watched it a day earlier. I suppose Mariana/Ines is Nurse Betsy and Leao/Isaach is the zombie wife, but then neither of the two brothers exist, just their mother Edith Scob. The connection gives critics something to talk about, at least, but the director seems to have thought better of the idea.

from the marvellous Cinema Scope interview:

I had this idea—which was a stupid idea—of doing a remake of a film called I Walked With A Zombie by Jacques Tourneur, who made a lot of films here [in America] like Cat People, Anne of the Indies, Way of a Gaucho. He was a great artisan. I decided to make something around my memory of that film; a film that has zombies, volcanoes, ghosts, crazy women, dogs, various strange nights, a lot of confusion and mystery. You will see that it’s not at all like I Walked With A Zombie; it’s something else.

M. Guillen [note that the film’s English title was Down To Earth – and he disagrees with me over which Zombie character Edith Scob is performing]:

Scob accepted Costa’s strange invitation to reconfigure the role of Tourneur’s entranced Jessica; the lost, White woman under the spell of the island.

Costa cautions that Casa de Lava is a confusing film that leaves the viewer a bit lost. He attributes this to the fact that he himself started losing himself consciously during the shoot, sharing Mariana’s role in the narrative. The story revolves around the arrival of a young nurse on the island who has accompanied the comatose body of an injured laborer Leão. As Costa previously specified, the body of Leão supplies the “dead weight” that thematically runs throughout his films. Mariana’s inability to find anyone willing to claim the body creates the film’s texture of gravitas. The film’s narrative slows down for having no immediate resolution.

Describing [the island of Fogo, where this film was shot], Marker [in Sans Soleil] writes: “I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away.” This underscores Mariana’s own “alien” quality among the islanders. Perhaps, after all, there is some sense to the translation Down to Earth? As Daniel Kasman summizes: “Inês Medeiros’ existential experience on the island is the film’s primary grounding.”

Long Pauses:

Costa’s own description of Casa de Lava reads like a ghost story:

“In the beginning there is noise, desperation and abuse. Mariana wants to get out of hell. She reaches out her hand to a half dead man, Leao. It’s only natural, Mariana is full of life and thinks that maybe the two of them can escape from hell together. On the way, she believes that she is bringing the dead man to the world of the living. Seven days and nights later, she realises she was wrong. She brought a living man among the dead.”

Like a mash-up of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie and Claire Denis’s Chocolat, Casa de Lava concerns a young woman, Mariana (Ines de Medeiros), whose exotic notions about the Other are tested and refuted by first-hand experience.

Mariana can’t help but be seduced by the Otherness of Cape Verde. … The music is one more seducer that tricks Mariana into believing that she is the object of desire. It’s also one more language that she invariably misinterprets. Mariana only realizes her mistake — that she has “brought a living man among the dead” — in the film’s closing sequence. Appropriately, the final images in the film resist simple interpretation. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say only that Mariana witnesses two events that shatter the illusions that had sustained her during her week in Cape Verde: that she was a source of health and healing for the wounded people there, and that she held sexualized power over them. At her moment of awakening, Costa frames Mariana in a still close-up and, for only a few seconds, brings back the non-diegetic viola music. When the music ends, so does her story.

Pedro Hestnes at right:

Edith Scob at right:

J. Rosenbaum:

There are at least four other Andrades listed in the cast of Casa de Lava, all of them playing children of Bassoé [Raul Andrade] – one of many factors that suggests that the film, like all of Costa’s other films, is an intricate mixture of fact and fiction. Costa told Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (issue no. 22) that the film was originally scripted, but “at one point I just left the script behind, because I thought that if I’m going to try to shoot this girl in this new place that’s foreign and dangerous, then I have to shoot it from her point of view,” and “There was a lot of improvisation each day” – one indication among many that Mariana (Inês Medeiros), the lead character, largely functions as Costa’s surrogate in the film. Nearly all the ethical questions and ambiguities posed about her involvement with the islands’ residents are those raised by Costa’s involvement – that is to say, his filmmaking – as well. And improvisation is perhaps the most obvious way of raising the existential stakes of these issues. As Costa notes, he and Isaach De Bankolé even came to blows over the latter’s objections as a professional actor to his character Leao having to remain in a coma for most or all of the film. (It’s also my impression – gleaned from the account of a friend who attended Costa’s discussion of the film in Los Angeles – that Leao, like his rough counterpart in I Walked with a Zombie, never would have come out of his coma at all if it hadn’t been for Bankolé’s objections.)

Casa de Lava may be the film of Costa’s that poses the most constant and furious tug of war between Hollywood narrative and the nonnarrative portraiture of both places and people, staging an almost epic battle between the two. These warring modes become almost magically fused whenever there is a landscape shot with one or more human figures; every time this happens, the film moves into high gear. … Typically, … we’re either told too little about what’s happening in order to be able to follow the story or everything we could possibly want to know – in both cases in a rather mannerist fashion.

Much later in the film, the son (Pedro Hestnes) of a white islander, Edite (Edith Scob), gives a similarly telegraphic account of his mother, himself, and the allotment of funds, again to Mariana, over his father’s grave: “She came after him. She was 20 years old. She was half his age. I never met him. He was a political prisoner. Afterwards, she never went home. She’s been here for years with me. People help her. She likes them, they like her. We live here. Now we get a check every month, his pension, to pay everyone back. They know, they all wait. They all want to leave.”

Opens with a medium shot of young Vicente getting slapped, but despite the violence it gives more of a Bela Tarr feeling than of Sam Fuller’s Naked Kiss. “What shall I tell Nino?,” he asks. “That I’m dead,” replies his father, ironic because the father soon will be dead but that’s the one thing Vicente never tells Nino. V drives home in what looks like a motorscooter with a tiny van chassis set atop it, is told by his girlfriend Clara that Nino has gone missing (he’s out playing with friend Rosa). Dark, beautiful black-and-white close-ups of Clara, Rosa and Nino, each shot seeming to be in its own little world, nothing explained until later. I didn’t even follow any of this until watching for the second time.

V and Clara are fighting to be their own independent family with Nino, against the influence of the father (who dies [of illness?] early on), dad’s illegal-business partners who begin stalking Vicente, and an uncle who visits for Christmas then decides to forcibly adopt Nino after discovering Nino’s dad to be missing. What does happen to the father, anyway? He comes home upset, looking for something. Acts sick. One night V rushes to the pharmacy, breaks in and rifles the shelves looking for something before stopping, resigned. The next scene he and Clara are burying dad. Between this movie and Casa de Lava, Costa doesn’t seem interested in connecting the dots between plot points, but more in giving a cinematic experience that doesn’t strictly depend on story. This one comes across as a dream euro-art film: an elliptical black-and-white adaptation of a crime drama with poetry in the dialogue, the kind of movie that no longer existed in 1989, if it ever had.

Costa has an odd way of presenting conflict without building tension in the usual ways, so when Vincente fights the almost-comical gangsters and when Nino is taken by his uncle (Luis Miguel Cintra: big in Oliveira movies, including A Talking Picture), and when a body is discovered floating in the river (accompanied by a wonderous shot, shadows of a crowd upon the water) I never felt like the stakes were very high. The movie is full of close-ups but they’re more picturesque than emotionally intimate – whole story feels distant. I’m not complaining, just curious.

G. Kenny doesn’t think so:

Every single shot in O Sangue is beautiful, incredibly sharp and well-defined, suffused with ache and sensuality. The multi-leveled cinematic references—to Murnau’s Sunrise, to the films of Val Lewton, which Costa will reference even more explicitly in his next feature Casa de Lava, to Antonioni and to Bertolucci and to Bellochio; they’re all here, maybe encyclopedically so, and yet they never feel self-conscious, or decadent.

Whoa, I got a sense of Sunrise but missed all the others. Even the Sunrise reference I wasn’t sure about – I chalked it up to the fact that I’m always thinking of Sunrise. I also thought about Shoot The Piano Player and Thieves After Dark, hoping it wouldn’t end like those movies with somebody shot to death.

The uncle and his wife:

more Kenny:

As a relatively late convert to Costa, I find the picture endlessly fascinating and intriguing. To put it in the vocabulary of a punk rocker, it’s as if he started with Rocket to Russia and worked backwards to The Ramones. If you don’t speak punk rock, here’s what Robert Christgau said about Russia: “Having revealed how much you can take out and still have rock and roll, they now explore how much you can put back in and still have Ramones.” O Sangue can be seen as Costa/cinema with stuff put back in: moving camera, a particular use of music, and so on.

You said it, Mr. Kenny – every shot just sparkles (and the DVD is exceptional). Costa worked with three cinematographers: Acacio de Almeida (Ruiz’s City of Pirates, Treasure Island and That Day), Elso Roque (Oliveira’s Vainglory of Command and Francisca) and Martin Schafer (Wenders’ Lightning Over Water and Kings of the Road). Lead lovers Ines de Medeiros (Lucia in Rivette’s Gang of Four) and Pedro Hestnes (later in Ruiz’s Love Torn in Dream) work well with the careful compositions, posing silently half the time, and bursting into motion when needed.

J. Quandt:

One of those first films that feels like the unleashing of pent-up forces — long nurtured visual ideas, banked homages to favorite films and directors, a romanticism unseen since early Leos CaraxO Sangue was also something of a false start, in the sense that its dreamy, nocturnal tone, conspicuous cinephilia, and showboating camera work did not establish Costa’s true path, which was towards a spare, materialist cinema.

Statements like this make me worry that I might not like Costa’s later acclaimed minimalist works, since I liked O Sangue an awful lot. Jimmy has already warned that Colossal Youth is boring and he couldn’t finish it. I’ll bet he’d like this one, though.

from A. Martin’s booklet essay:

From the very first moments of his first feature Blood, Pedro Costa forces us to see something new and singular in cinema, rather than something generic and familiar. The black-and-white cinematography … pushes far beyond a fashionable effect of high contrast, and into something visionary: whites that burn, blacks that devour. Immediately, faces are disfigured, bodies deformed by this richly oneiric work on light, darkness, shadow and staging. Carl Dreyer in Gertrud gave cinema something that Jacques Rivette (among others) celebrated: bodies that ‘disappear in the splice’, that live and die from shot to shot, thus pursuing a strange half-life in the interstices between reels, scenes, shots, even frames. Costa takes this poetic of light and shade, of appearance and disappearance – the poetic of Dreyer, Murnau, Tourneur – and radicalises it still further. In Blood, there is a constant, trembling tension: when a scene ends, when a door closes, when a back is turned to camera, will the character we are looking at ever return? People disappear in the splices, a sickly father dies between scenes, transforming in an instant from speaking and (barely) breathing body to heavy corpse. Blood is a special first feature – the first features of not-yet auteurs themselves forming a particular cinematic genre, especially in retrospect. Perhaps it was from Huillet and Straub’s Class Relations that Costa learnt the priceless lesson of screen fiction, worthy of Sam Fuller: start the piece instantly, with a gaze, a gesture, a movement, some displacement of air and energy, something dropped like a heavy stone to shatter the calm of pre-fiction equilibrium. To set the motor of the intrigue going – even if that intrigue will be so shadowy, so shrouded in questions that go to the very heart of its status as a depiction of the real.

comments by Philippe Azoury from the DVD extras:

“The project, let’s say, of these three characters, is to escape authority. and for Costa the project of the film, even more ambitious, is to escape from the authority of the narrative, that is, to imagine a mise en scene where each shot claims its own territory, in which each shot forces its own presence…”

“The father, this father that has been gotten rid of, is it his body that is fished out? It’s not impossible. The film is, let’s say, obscure about the question.” And I thought it was the father too, but using the magic of the rewind button I see that the dead man has a thick moustache and Vicente’s dad had none.

Speaking about the constant referencing of other films, he says “the film tells of this way of breaking with one’s inheritance, of finishing with this inheritance once and for all. … the film could be understood as a kind of work of total devastation, an undermining of references, a bit punk, this gesture, in which we once and for all cut things off, but in truth we don’t do anything like that…”

He says Vincente commits patricide, but that’s not true, is it?

The DVD also includes two Jeanne Balibar songs, presumably from Ne Change Rien. She sings “Torture” in English, barely lit with a static camera, then rehearses backstage.