Colossal Youth: Paintings of a Life on the Brink of Death

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Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

I haven’t come across a filmmaker with an almost Ozu-like dedication to the static shot as Pedro Costa. Throughout his examination of the people and places in the Fontainhas Neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, we get an almost painterly experience throughout his films. A gallery of frames, sculptures, contained spaces with some moving parts, but mostly still, as they are, in real time, decaying before our very eyes. His characters too, hardly moving and even when in extensive conversation rarely looking at each other or at anything in particular really; mannequins, furniture, remnants of the slowly dying surroundings which they have inhabited their whole lives. Even the clean polished apartments, which Ventura, Costa’s central character in the beautifully understated film Colossal Youth, is being forced into moving into as his slum community is being demolished, look lifeless and dead. The white walls are not really that white, the clean corners are not really that clean. As the “realtor” explains the beauties of the area, Ventura quietly points to a cobweb near the ceiling and matter-of-factly states “there’s spiders everywhere”.

Costa is as much of a visual filmmaker as anybody, but his visuals are not really associated with what we normally see and are used to as ‘cinema’, but more a combination of performance art and modernist sculpture. Lighting plays a role almost opposite that used in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Kaurismaki puts spotlights on actors to illicit the feel of a theatrical performance, highlighting a dramatic space but then subverting it with a typical Finnish dead-pan subtlety. Costa’s lighting is simply part of the aesthetic. It isn’t highlighting the characters, but blending them into their surroundings. They are part of the scenery, just as much a piece of the greater painting as the furniture or walls they stand beside.

Even as characters shift around and pass by places, the camera and lighting doesn’t follow them. Our eyes and attention is constantly being guided to the details of the buildings, the inanimate monoliths, walls, staircases, roofs, street-corners, alleyways, and witnessing their death in real time. All the scratches, mold, chipped paint, dirt, mud, dust, everything signaling the passing of life. The only time the camera moves throughout the entirety of Colossal Youth is the two sequences in which Ventura sits in a park… the only two places he ever visits which exhibit a sense of vibrant living, a fight for life and against death… organisms, trees, birds, worms, nature at work constantly living, never stopping, never still.

The beautifully decaying images of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth:

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The Passion of Joan of Arc : Cinema becomes Art becomes Human

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1928)

I watched Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc two times. Once with Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” music score as background, and once with complete silence. Suffice to say, Dreyer’s genius, and the utter emotional churning and heartbreak of Maria Falconetti’s magnum opus performance were resilient and just as evocative regardless of which way you decide to see this film. The Passion of Joan of Arc has many times been recounted as the moment that cinema became art. What was the most astounding aspect of this film was its absolute nakedness. With minimal dialogue, being filmed without music and with zero diegetic sound, there is pure structure, composition, framing, and acting. It is the motion picture at its bare-bones foundation.

Dreyer’s work with Falconetti is the support beam and the cement which this film is built on top of. Each scene is a juxtaposition of Falconetti’s rending pain, hopeful joy, and eternal sorrow with the world around her. As the men of the church do all they can put fear, shame and anguish into her heart, forcing her to recant her devotion to God’s mission, we sympathize on an almost metaphysical level with Falconetti’s Joan. The power of Dreyer’s depiction and his cuts between Joan’s reactions and her surroundings pierces any predisposed belief system we have for or against religion. It is a testament to the craft and film form, that Dreyer’s ability to evoke pain and empathy runs across all ideologies to tie us together and react on the level of a unified human suffering; a suffering brought about through injustice and intolerance. We root for Joan the woman, Joan the human being, Joan the martyr of ideas and beliefs and her freedome to believe. We root against a Church which represses her devotion, a most ironic injustice. All of this, seen and felt through a camera and and editing room. Carl Dreyer, with The Passion of Joan of Arc gave us a film that will transcend through time, unfettered, because it speaks to the basis of human unity, and does so with the most artistic and passionate of visions on screen. This is the power of cinema, so clear even at its earliest stages.