SFIFF at the PFA 2007, Part II

Here's the second of a few short posts about my favorite films of the San Francisco International Film Festival, shown at the Pacific Film Archive in the Spring of 2007

The most memorable film of the festival, because it was unlike any other film I've seen was Colossal Youth, the third segment of a collaborative piece of poetry, an improvised documentary/performance film about displaced Cape Verdians from the Fontainhas district of Lisbon, directed by Pedro Costa.

The main character, Ventura, is a Christ like "Daddy" figure to his real or imagined children -- recovering heroin addicts, real people featured in his two previous films, Bones and In Vanda's Room. It uses repetition, the memorization of a love letter (a poem for his absent wife Clotilde) penned by "Papa" (recited as a favor to one of his illiterates, who also longs for his own wife) to circle into the depths of anomie and longing.

This unwritten letter, repeated and composed, line by line, inscribed without a pen (for honest lack of a pen) each time starting again from the beginning, out loud (like the antithesis of the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas) is used to speak about hopes we sustain, even when we know the answer to our wish will only come long after it's too late to wish for an answer.

We sing to ourselves, and to our past lovers, our long lost friends, about the gifts we plan to give them (a hundred-thousand cigarettes), once we find them again (without an address), if only they will wait for us (in a place of exile), return (to a home that can only be imagined), come home (to a city that has been razed, to furniture thrown from windows).

"Papa" begs for more space from the government housing authority for his many "children", standing against the sterile architecture of the refurbished housing units on the outskirts of Lisbon, built to replace the destroyed slum of Fontainhas. He visits decrepit transitional buildings, still inhabited by many of his "children's mothers." As he recites his lines (his familiar songs) he speaks about the many "mothers" who have left him behind. He cries out to the "children" who should take him in. Even as he attempts to shelter them, he is also seeking shelter. Many of his children don't recognize him as their father, telling him he must have come to the wrong apartment, using the same mysterious phrases, calls, and counter-calls when he begs for their company.

Costa reduced these scenes from about 32 hours of video taken of his non-professional actors. The flat Hal Hartleyesque delivery of lines between characters propped up against one another, (like two sitters without chairs, who must sit back-to-back in order to rest) takes the audience into an experimental slum-scape that simultaneously elevates and enervates the consciousness. We identify with those lost, disillusioned card players, who can only make the sounds repeated to them, because of the fear of losing the words that can never be penned or even approximated, words that make rhythm into hope, and thought concrete, as concrete as the key to a clean housing unit for a clean addict, in a clean project as transparent as memory, and the flights of youthful addiction.

Costa's long takes are uncut meditations, like the literal interpretation of the phrase, "motion picture." Each scene is like a discreet photograph, unexpectedly and subtly moving, like a ghost encountered in a museum, or a paralytic security guard fantasizing about flight, thought to be a sculpture, or the corpse of a thought.

Costa's stillness is exhausting, like a dream with a death-grip, or a sticky molasses that keeps one from reaching.

The injuries that may never heal: the death of a child; the guilt of the addicted mother; the impossibility of satisfying labor for displaced migrant workers; the malaise of a home that will never feel like home (and never contain the many children ministered to by "Papa"), the odor of poverty that prevents Ventura from visiting the Gulbenkian Foundation, all of these wounds pass with time in the repetition of monologues, duets, letters, poems, conversations, games, and television theme songs.

The spoken word, the static government building, the immobile motion picture, each one invents it's own method of day-to-day survival, it's own tone that does ring, lovely and regenerative and dull.


dave said...

I've read elsewhere that Costa shot 320 hours of footage to make this film.

SisterRye said...

I stand corrected. Thank you.

Michelle said...

Perhaps I can prompt you with the following:

"Hey, what movies have you seen lately?"

Are you going to come back one day? I hope so.

SisterRye said...

I just saw La Vie en Rose. Before that, The Lives of Others (twice). I'll write a review. Thanks for the prompting!

I've been blogged-out. It seems silly to announce a blog hiatus when I have only a few readers.

Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman's deaths made me want to revisit their works.

It's nice to know you're still kneading the Rye.

Michael said...

Sister Rye,

Michael here, former proprietor of CultureSpace, which I just closed down to direct my interests to a new (and somewhat similar) blog. But the main reason I'm commenting here is to echo Michelle's sentiment: hope you'll be back soon. Looking forward to your review of The Lives of Others if you decide to post it, and anything you might write about Bergman or Antonioni, if you're so inclined.

SisterRye said...

Wow. Thanks very much for the motivation. I'm sorry to hear that CultureSpace is no more. But, I'm looking forward to your next project.
I didn't know anyone really missed my mumbling with a mouth full of breadcrumbs. Fresh rye coming soon.

Michael said...

Sister Rye, forgive the shameless plug, but if you're interested, here's the new (post-CultureSpace) site:


Glad to see you're back. :)

SisterRye said...

Your new site looks really cool. Thanks for pointing us there.