O Sangue (The Blood, 1989, Pedro Costa)

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.

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