The earliest Oliveira movie I’ve seen by three decades – and he was making movies three decades earlier than this. That would explain why this already feels like the work of an old master, even though I was considering it “early Oliveira.” The camera’s not as exactingly positioned as in Resnais films like Melo and Love Unto Death, but it has a similar feeling to those, the masterful European period dramas that seem at time to be filmed plays but with a mysterious sense that there’s always something more going on.

The Silent Gardener:

According to the wikipedia, Oliveira fell afoul of the government in the mid-60’s, accused of surrealism, then was silent for years until this film’s release. More: “With its lyrical surrealism and farcical situations, the film was a shift from his earlier work about lower class people. Based on a play by Joao Cesar Monteiro . . . Past and Present was the first of what has become known as Oliveira’s “Tetralogy of frustrated loves”. It was followed by Benilde or the Virgin Mother, Doomed Love and Francisca. Each of these films share the theme of unfulfilled love, the backdrop of a repressive society, and the beginning of Oliveira’s unique cinematic style.” It’s got that mannered surrealism typical of Bunuel’s late career – you can see how the two filmmakers got tangled together. Couldn’t tell if Oliveira was abusing the film’s soundtrack in various ways or (most likely) if the broadcast source of my video copy was a bit wonky. Second movie I’ve seen recently to use music by Mendelssohn. There’s not much written about the film online – even my most reliable Oliveira-advocate Rosenbaum had not seen this one, as of his writings circa Christopher Columbus, The Enigma.

First scene is a gathering of friends attending the funeral of Vanda’s ex-husband Ricardo. She abuses current husband Firmino, forbids him from attending. I don’t think Ricardo has just died – this is “the burial of his remains” two years later? “A year after his death, she married Firmino, and a year later, she fell in love with the former husband. An unhealthy passion for the deceased husband, the same that bothered her in life, and, at the same time, what an anger for poor Firmino!”

Firmino with hateful wife Vanda:

Also at the party: Fernando (sideburns, glasses) and Noemia (light hair, pulled back), a divorced couple with a better, more loving relationship than when they were married. Honorio (balding) and Angelica (reddish hair) are married, but slightly-shaggy, Depardieu-looking Mauricio is in love with Angelica. And finally there’s Daniel, the deceased Ricardo’s identical twin brother. Firmino is caught considering stabbing his wife to death, but holds back.

A year later, Firmino writes a suicide note then leaps from the window (comically avoiding being caught by the silent gardener). It takes him days to die, days his wife Vanda spends cursing his name and ordering a coffin – and the friends all gather at the house again. Angelica has been living with Mauricio, but he tells her to return to her husband (“This adultery will make you appreciate more the virtues of fidelity, just as a trip abroad reveals the sweetness of the homeland”) because he’s now in love with Noemia.

Cheaters Mauricio and Angelica:

Moments before her husband dies, Daniel reveals to Vanda that he’s really Ricardo, that the brothers had swapped clothes before the fatal car accident and he swapped his wedding ring afterwards.

“Vanda, your husband is dead”
L-R: Noemia (Manuela de Freitas of some Joao Cesar Monteiro films), Honorio (Duarte de Almeida of Magic Mirror, The Convent), Fernando, Angelica.

Another year – A judge has declared that Vanda and Ricardo are still married, so she’s now in love with the dead Firmino. Angelica is back with Mauricio and getting dumped again.

Ricardo spies Vanda hanging pictures of deceased Firmino around the house:

Daniel/Ricardo:

A friend is getting married, so the friends gather again, and the movie ends with the exchanging of wedding vows and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.

Every year I look forward to the Atlanta Film Festival, getting increasingly excited until some offensive act causes me to sit out the second half. This time I was thrilled to see Ruiz’s five-hour Mysteries of Lisbon on the program, but pissed once it started that they were projecting it from DVD. What kind of rinky-dink festival thinks that is an acceptable practice, and without even an apology or excuse? Picture was muddy and macro-blocky, the color desaturated compared even to DVD screenshots I found online. When I complained about the same issue two years ago after a screening of Beket, an AFF official left a comment counterintuitively stating “screening 35mm prints is cheaper for us to do than any other format we use.” I hope he returns this year to explain the Lisbon situation. Also, the dude from Turner who introduced the film called Ruiz, the seventy year old director of over a hundred films “up and coming,” with no knowing wink or chuckle to imply he wasn’t serious.

The movie was very good, worth taking the time off at 1:00pm on a weekday to see in its entirety, but not my favorite Ruiz movie by a long shot, lacking the anarchist humor of That Day and the shorts I’ve seen. If not for a well-placed deep focus shot here, an anamorphic lens-twisting there, I could’ve believe that any of a handful of dedicated European art directors had adapted the 150-year-old novel into this massive period costume miniseries.

Young Joao is having a fit, deathly ill, dreams he sees his mother, whom he’s never met. When he awakens, Father Dinis of the orphanage begins to tell him about his mother, Countess Angela who lives nearby, forbidden by her domineering husband from even seeing her illicit son. The movie takes on a flashback structure that reminds me slightly of The Saragossa Manuscript, even with the storytellers interrupting themselves to go to sleep, then resuming the next day. It seems Angela was in love with a young man (Don Pedro) whom her father wouldn’t let her marry, she got pregnant, and the baby was to be killed – but the assassin (Knife Eater) cut a deal with a passing gypsy (the priest in disguise) and sold the child.

Mysterious gypsy, left, with Knife Eater:

Back in the present, an outspoken Brazilian (Alberto de Magalhaes, formerly known as Knife Eater) is entering high society. Awesome scene when some guy demands a duel and Alberto straight kicks his ass, the fight shot through the window of the priest’s passing carriage. Angela’s husband, who’d married her despite the priest’s ghostly warning that he would be marrying “a dead slave” since her heart was lost to the murdered father of her stolen child, had become a tyrant who openly carried on an affair with Eugenia the maid and locked Angela in a single room. But the husband gets sick and dies, repenting first to the priest. Oh, and priest, while you’re here, an old monk named Alvaro wants to talk to you, reveal that he’s your father and give you the skull of his wife Silvina, your mother, to take home with you. Flashing back to a scene of the priest’s birth (and mother’s death), we get an excellent long take, following the nervous father from room to room. Knife Eater, in an unexplained coincidence (probably detailed in the miniseries version), marries the housekeeper who once tormented Angela.

I can’t remember who this is – found the screenshots online:

Another sidetrack story, as Elise de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme of Regular Lovers and Love Songs) arrives, and the meddling priest visits to tell her about her mother Blanche, who was adored by the priest, and also Benoit (son of the nobleman who watched over the priest) and a colonel whose life the other two men had saved, Ernest Lacroze (Ruiz regular Melvil Poupaud) – Benoit wins, marries the girl and they have two kids – Elise and her brother who died recently in a duel. A grown Joao, now called Pedro da Silva, loves Elise, but she says to earn her love he needs to avenge her brother’s death, caused by the wicked Alberto de Magalhaes. He returns to Lisbon from France after hearing of his mother’s death in the convent where she’d been living since her husband died. Joao/Pedro challenges Alberto, who won’t fight, tells Pedro that Alberto was the would-be assassin the day Pedro was born, who reformed and turned the money the gypsy/priest had paid for the boy’s life into a fortune, says Elise is always sending infatuated young men to kill him.

Poor Joao’s mother, with priest in the background:

Anyway, probably some other stuff happens, and Pedro gives up and sets sail for Tangiers – seems to be dying at the end, dictating his life story, the movie looping back to his illness at the beginning, making me think perhaps he died in the orphanage never meeting his mother, imagining the whole rest of the movie in a five-hour fever dream. Also in both bookend scenes is his puppet theater, which the movie uses to illustrate the scenes or to set up new ones, and a painting that comes to life in a weird Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting tableau moment.

One of my favorite recurring events in the movie is that during many of the major scenes, the lead characters’ servants are shown blatantly listening in, sometimes in the foreground while the conversations are distant from the camera. I’m not sure what it added up to, all the shifting identities and vendettas and love affairs and parental secrets, besides being an entertaining bunch of stories. And for a movie with Mysteries in the title, everything is pretty well explained by the end.

Lots of writing on this online. More than one mention of Great Expectations, which occurred to me too. M. Koresky’s article is my favorite:

The nun who was a countess. The priest who was a soldier. The nobleman who was a thief. The poet who was a bastard. Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is a costume drama in more ways than one. … Though it may seem daunting, the size of the film is its chief pleasure. There’s so much room to parry and maneuver, so many doors (some literal) to unlock, secrets and coincidences to be in thrall to. … Whether we’re seeing a death or a regeneration, a dream or a remembrance, the final images of Mysteries of Lisbon, filtered through an amber haze of memory, unites all of the film’s disparate strands in one delirious, cinematic consciousness.

“Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant”

I don’t know what to expect from an Oliveira movie. This one is only an hour long, but not because it’s in any great hurry to tell its story, a fairly simple one which moves at a leisurely pace. Definitely a well-made film, with a respectable look to it, not a work of madcap genius, not tired or haphazard. Mildly enjoyable throughout, then at the end I’m not sure what it all meant.
Adapted from a story by famous novelist Eça de Queirós but set in modern day, so there’s a scene at a literary society with a bust of the author among other displays of his work. Narrated by the lead character to a stranger on a train, played by Leonor Silveira, star of A Talking Picture.

Macario (Ricardo Trepa, the bartender who chats with Piccoli in Belle Toujours) is an accountant for his uncle, sees beautiful Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein of Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon) across the street and falls in love. Conspires to marry her, but his uncle will have none of it, so he sets out on his own, makes a small fortune working in Cape Verde then returns, only to lose it all by vouching for a friend who leaves town with another man’s wife. So he’s about to go back to Cape Verde but his uncle decides to take him back, says he can marry the girl. So they go out ring shopping, she is caught stealing a ring, he tells her to go away, roll credits. In an earlier scene, he lost a poker chip (during a poetry reading by Luis Miguel Cintra, who played the malignant uncle in Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, as himself) which rolled towards Luisa and disappeared, so he must realize she’s a habitual thief. Still, it’s an odd little story.

Trepa and Silveira:

J. Reichert

[The story] occupies the filmmaker’s by-now familiar nether-Lisbon, in which lives are lived simultaneously in 1609, 1909, and 2009. Oliveira’s a filmmaker at which the adjective urbane could be lobbed equally as praise or slight depending on your tolerance for his scarily coherent (especially of late) body of work. …If this tale weren’t so endearing and well told, it’d be more akin to one of those lengthy jokes told by aged uncles lacking in point or punchline.

Luis Miguel Cintra:

NY Times searches for clues:

As his story begins, the landscape outside the train window is snow covered; by the time it ends, it is green. Other tiny mysteries deepen the film’s enigmatic, gently surreal mood. … Macário encounters a strange, agitated man looking for his hat, left at the spot where Macário is standing. Periodically the movie returns to the same long shot of Lisbon but always filmed in a different light. At various points chimes ring from a tower whose clock has no hands. Everything is framed. Macário’s story is framed by the train trip. His dream girl, a full-lipped sensual beauty whose ash-blond hair tumbles over one eye, is glimpsed while standing at a window, seen through another window, waving a fringed Chinese fan. Even when she retreats behind a thin curtain, her silhouette is visible. Behind her is a framed portrait. Art not only seems to watch over life but to preserve it.

A blond-haired girl:

The DVD holds a press conference with the director and lead actors which is longer than the movie itself… might watch that another day.

“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:

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.

So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.