Colossal Youth (2006)

Dir. Pedro Costa

Nearly all of the press coverage of Colossal Youth has been accompanied by the same low-angle shot of Ventura, the film’s protagonist. He’s an elderly man, tall and thin. In this particular image, we see little of his face — just one eye peering over his right shoulder. The photo is dominated, instead, by the stark lines and sharp angles of a newly-constructed, State-funded tenement high-rise that blots out the sky behind him.

The image is even more striking in the film. Costa cuts first to the building, which hangs in space like a two-dimensional painted backdrop, and pauses there for a few seconds, allowing our eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness before Ventura enters the frame. I’ve probably seen that promotional photo fifty or sixty times since my first viewing of Colossal Youth in September, but Ventura’s entrance still shocked and surprised me on a second viewing. The light is so cool and clear and the contrast so high that all of the contours in Ventura’s black suit are lost and he is likewise rendered in two dimensions, iconic-like. Only his expressionless face has depth and shadow and, thus, appears “real.” When Ventura enters the frame and hits his mark, posing for Costa’s camera, the image is barely cinema at all. (When a friend asked why I like Colossal Youth so much, the best answer I could come up with was, “Because before seeing it, I didn’t know film could do that.”)

Less than 24 hours after seeing Colossal Youth again, I found myself in the DeYoung Museum, staring at Aaron Douglas’s “Aspiration” (1936). The day before I’d been struck by the notion that Costa’s film is a nostalgic (in the best sense of the word — “a painful yearning”) return to Modernism, and, in particular, a return to Modernism’s epistemological and political concern for form. And here, in the middle of Golden Gate park, hung a keen relic from that era. Commissioned for the Texas Centennial Exhibition, “Aspiration” fashions from the lines and angles of the “lone star” an allusion to America’s slave-trading past: the dark peaks created in the spaces between the two lower points of the stars recall the pyramids of Egypt, especially when juxtaposed against the reclining woman, a symbol of African civilization.

Moving from the bottom of the canvas (foreground) to the top (distance), “Aspiration” invokes the “progress” of African American history from slavery to emancipation to industrialization, but it does so in a manner (form) that generates tense ambivalence. Douglas’s shadowed, cut-out figures are sliced by the hard lines of the stars, and the new American “city on the hill,” with its art deco idealism, seems insurmountably distant (not to mention dehumanizing and exploitative). The title of the painting, like the image itself, must be read ironically, but not just ironically, for the work’s subject — the tragic, beautiful hope of African American experience — is urgent and potentially radical. (With shades of Walter Benjamin on Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”: “The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”)

Colossal Youth documents a specific instance of “progress” by following a small community of impoverished immigrants as they’re relocated from the Fountainhas district of Lisbon to Casal Boba, a suburban housing development. Fountainhas, which features prominently in Costa’s earlier films, Ossos (1997) and No Quarto de Vanda (2000), was razed during the filming of Colossal Youth. It simply no longer exists. Vanda Duarte and the rest of Ventura’s “children” have been removed permanently to those white tenement high-rises, where they enjoy relatively healthy living conditions and benefit from State-subsidized healthcare and social programs. (I make this assumption based on the worker who arranges Ventura’s apartment and Vanda’s story about taking methadone to battle her heroin addiction.)

The same tense ambivalence that characterizes “Aspiration” can be felt even in my brief summary of Colossal Youth. I’ve not yet seen No Quarto de Vanda (and, unfortunately, it will be the one Costa film still to have elluded me after I spend a long weekend in Toronto next month), but the Fountainhas that we see in Ossos is a dank and demoralizing place. A political reading of Colossal Youth that glosses over the practical benefits of Casal Boba would stretch the bounds of credibility. However, the verbs in my summary are key: “relocated” and “removed.” The people of Fountainhas are acted upon, and once personal freedom is eliminated from the equation, the State’s intent, no matter how good or just, loses relevance.

In other words, Colossal Youth, like Douglas’s painting, raises the sticky problem of agency. As we learn from Dave McDougall’s excellent piece on the film, Costa’s intent is to tell “the history that nobody has yet told,” the story of the immigrants of Ventura’s generation who were lost in the shuffle of Portugal’s revolutionary transformation in the mid-1970s from a dictatorship to a liberal democracy. “Filming these things the way I did does not put much faith in democracy,” Costa has said. “People like Ventura built the museums, the theaters, the condominiums of the middle-class. The banks and the schools. As still happens today. And that which they helped to build was what defeated them.” [Thanks, Dave, for the translations.] Costa’s words remind me of those who argue that, instead of conservatives or libertarians, it’s actually people of the far Left who should oppose social welfare programs, since those programs soothe the suffering that would otherwise provoke revolution. As Costa says in the same interview, Ventura’s “children” are also the lost children of April 25, 1974, whose potential revolutionary spirit has been dashed by the “white walls” of Casal Boba.

Which brings me back to that signature photo of Ventura and to Costa’s Modernism. After reading Dave’s post, it occurs to me that nostalgia might be a particularly useful concept in thinking about Colossal Youth. “There are two parts to this film,” Costa says, “a past and a present of the Fontaínhas, that coincide also with the before and the afterwards of the 25 of April. The past is fraternal, utopian, romantic. In this time is the story of the love-letter that Ventura repeats. The present is resigned, unfortunate, mediocre.” I suspect Costa might say the same of the cinema?

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I’ll be seeing Colossal Youth again on June 16, and I’m hoping that Costa will make his appearance on that weekend. I plan to write a second installment of this piece after the retrospective.