Without a doubt the most difficult film in this year's Cannes competition - where it provoked more walk-outs than any other film - Pedro Costa's hyper-austere Colossal Youth at least deserves some recognition and respect.
While the film admittedly seems inert for large stretches of its challenging length, and many viewers will find it near-impossible to watch, Colossal Youth is nonetheless the work of an utterly uncompromising auteur who maps out his own unique territory and dares us to follow him if we're tough enough. For many, this might suggest the worst kind of directorial self-absorption, but if you're prepared to go the (admittedly gruelling) course, Colossal Youth eventually unfolds as a hypnotic, poetic film that's all the more remarkable for being rooted in a grim social reality.
There's something admirably quixotic about a director - and financiers - prepared to make a film so forbidding that few commercial distributors are likely to be tempted by it. It's festival fare par excellence, and even then, strictly for artier festivals.
Hitherto the most prominent expression of Costa's severe worldview was his 1997 film Bones (Ossos), set among the underprivileged inhabitants of Fontainhas, Lisbon's now-defunct Cape Verdean quarter. Colossal Youth follows Ventura, an elderly black ex-labourer and former Fontainhas resident who is moving, or about to move, to a new neighborhood, Casal Boba.
In a drama that is less an easily discernible narrative, more a sequence of disconnected tableaux, the saturnine Ventura meets and talks with - but largely listens to - a group of younger Lisbon dwellers whom he calls his children. Among them are a museum security guard, a man facing a leg operation following a shooting, and Vanda (Vanda Duarte, seen in Costa's 2000 film In Vanda's Room), a mother and former heroin addict undergoing methadone treatment.
An enigmatic narrative apparently zigzags between time periods: Ventura alternately appears with and without the head dressing occasioned by a work accident. But the film's main continuous thread is comprised of his pining for wife Clotilde, who leaves him at the start. In a poignant, poetic letter to her, repeated mantra-like throughout, he pleads with her to return, offering such incentives as "a hundred thousand cigarettes' [and] a dozen fancy dresses".
Costa works with a mainly black, Cape Verdean cast taken from Lisbon's working class and unemployed, and the acting is largely in a hypnotically uninflected register à la Robert Bresson. A notable exception is Duarte, who seems to be improvising her part in raucous fashion, or is conceivably just being herself: it's hard to judge.
What makes the film especially distinctive is its visual treatment. Working on a very low budget, with spare technical resources - hence the use of available light wherever possible - Costa and co-cinematographer Leonardo Simoes shoot on digital video, but overcame the familiar limitations of the DV format to produce visual textures that feel new.
Dream-like atmosphere and stark visuals may not be enough to vindicate the film entirely, however. Costa has moved so far away from the mainstream of art cinema, and so close to the aesthetic of video art, that it has to be asked whether a cinema is really the proper home for such a film, and whether a gallery environment might not suit it better. Forbidding as it is, though, Colossal Youth is not to be lightly dismissed. It's a film for the hardiest audience only, but it deserves to find that audience somehow, somewhere - even if it's not at Cannes.
Les Films de l'Etranger
Memento Films International