When I first saw my first Pedro Costa film, which was ‘Horse Money’ (2014), my whole ‘understanding’ of what film was – changed. It completely tore apart any notion of a concrete path in filmmaking, showing me just how much we have yet to discover with film. After that moment, I went on a downward spiral in a sea of unseen possibilities; not only had I never seen a film which blended fiction with documentary, following a mesmerising odyssey into the real, imagined and nightmarish memories of an elderly Cape Verdean immigrant living in Lisbon, I had never seen a film which used pacing, lighting, and cinematography the way he had. What I want to stress is the beautiful dreamlike world Costa creates in his films. Beautiful, yet broken. Highlighting the shadows each person carries with them, the complexities.
Costa wasn’t always on the film path. In fact, he started out studying for a degree in history at the University of Lisbon, where he eventually switched to study film at the Lisbon Theatre and Film School (Wikipedia). There he became a student under António Reis and Alberto Seixas Santos. While studying history at University of Lisbon, Costa switched to film courses at Lisbon Theatre and Film School (Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema) where he was a student of António Reis, Paulo Rocha and Alberto Seixas Santos. After working as an assistant director to several directors such as Jorge Silva Melo, Vítor Gonçalves and João Botelho, he made a first feature film O Sangue in 1989. He was making mostly narrative films up until his 1997 feature film ‘Ossos’, where he began to dive into the blending of fiction and fact, a ‘docufiction’. He has said, and it can be seen in his works, he falls in love with people and wants to show us something we may not be able to see. Costa, unlike the fast business of Hollywood or other movie markets in general, spends time. He gives his time to know the ‘actors’, live with them, have conversations with them, and build stories around that. Another uncommon thing about Costa, is that his crew never exceeds more than 10 people. Costa has stated in a few interviews his disregard for traditional narrative filmmaking. One of ‘Ossos’s’ (1996) actors, Vanda Duarte, decried the film’s lack of authenticity – the story had come from Costa, not from the community. She invited Costa to spend time with her in Fontainhas, and her offer led to In Vanda’s Room (2000), in which Costa radically rethought his aesthetic approach. I believe this led him down the path that eventually developed his unique aesthetic, which is simultaneously gritty and glossy, a look that delves into the emotional essence of experience by bypassing the signifiers of “realism” entirely.
I recently met the guy when he came to Columbia College Chicago (thanks to filmmaker and professor Mehrnaz Saeedvafa) for a screening of his most recent film ‘Vitalina Verela’ (2019). As I mentioned before, I had already seen his other films, ‘Horse Money’ (2014), and ‘Colossal Youth’ (2006), before, but this was the first time I had seen his 2019 film ‘Vitalina Verela’. And again, he challenged my ideas of filmmaking. This brings me to ask, what do you expect from a movie? For most, it is to be entertained, for some it is good characters. There is nothing wrong with these ideas, but let me ask you to push it further. We can be entertained and we can be made to cry, we can sit in awe of the beautiful cinematography and score. But Costa takes emotions with cinema to a whole new level. His films are hard to watch films. They are slow, contemplative: they force you to pay attention to every moment. He dives into the human experience in a way I have never seen before. Some of his inspirations include Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, and Mikio Naruse. I name these filmmakers because it wasn’t until after I saw ‘Horse Money’, that I discovered who they were. It is my hope that after reading this, you will be encouraged to watch Costa’s films. To watch these Filmmakers who disregard traditional filmmaking, who force you to sit with stillness and solitude. The ‘underground’, ‘unconventional’ styles of filmmaking, may send you on a film obsession like it did to me. I challenge you to try.
Written by Emma Pillsbury
Where to watch:
Criterion Channel: Ossos, Colossal Youth, In Vanda’s Room
Vudu: Horse Money
Fandor: Horse Money, Ne change rien