Sunday, July 29, 2012

#510: In Vanda's Room

(Pedro Costa, 2000)

If I was going to make a list of Criterion movies that would be most likely to infuriate the average American moviegoer, In Vanda's Room might even top it. I'm not talking about movies that might immediately come to mind as likely to be perceived as shocking, annoying, or even, really, boring. Instead, In Vanda's Room is something far more difficult: a movie that essentially disconnects itself in every way from conventional filmmaking.

After his deeply affecting experience making Ossos in the Fontainhas of Lisbon, Pedro Costa decided to return to the neighborhood (as it was being torn down) to make a different kind of film. It was a conscious decision by a director who had begun to question his own relationship with his subjects and the real-life squalor he was capturing in his fictional narratives. Rather than do what most socially conscious directors would do - which is basically what he did already with Ossos - Costa instead chose to reinvent narrative cinema. In Vanda's Room is filmed with a crew of one: Costa himself with a digital camera, shooting thousands of hours of footage with entirely atmospheric light. He uses people who live in the places he shoots them in, doing the things that they normally do. But this is not a documentary.

In Vanda's Room lacks any notable change in its characters. In fact, it often feels like it doesn't have characters - more background fillers, people filling space that is being torn down around them both within the narrative and in real life. The scenes in the film are slow, the interactions subtle, the tone dark and drab. This is not a film for most people - it's not really a film for me.

Still, I do feel the need to say how impressive of an accomplishment it is. This is most clear in the compositions and lighting, which - even without knowing that they were done by one man without any equipment - are astonishing, and demand attention even as the film around it becomes more and more challenging. There are scenes in this film that left me mesmerized. But at over three hours, the movie was simply too high a mountain for me to climb. Maybe I'll come back to this one and find something to grab onto, but a first viewing left me still at a distance.

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