Ossos (Bones, 1997, Pedro Costa)

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.”


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.

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