My first exposure to Pedro Costa was his brilliant and underseen debut, Blood, which I immediately sought out after a friend described it as Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night by way of Robert Bresson. His description was not only spot-on in terms of content and aesthetics, but also in terms of greatness. Colossal Youth, now only my second film from this freshly discovered director, doesn’t so much disappoint as much as shift expectations. Where Blood comes alive through vivid and expressive black-and-white cinematography, Colossal Youth uses a muted color palette and lengthy takes in its portrayal of Ventura, an elderly man living in a low-income housing community for immigrants on the outskirts of Lisbon. Here, Costa is most reminiscent of Dreyer, particularly Gertrud, in the stoicism of his actors’ expressions, the static frame, and the film’s unique, expanded sense of time.
The title Colossal Youth is, surprisingly enough, inspired by Young Marble Giants’ 1980 pop-/post-punk masterpiece. And while the parallels between that album and a film about poor immigrants may seem non-existent, they share an economy of expression in their minimalist approaches and the remarkable ability to emphasize every moment by carefully extracting the inessentials. They also share an equally effective use of negative space, Costa capturing the essence of their environment through beautiful framing and striking contrasts. For example, as Ventura wanders from one neighbor-friend to another, seemingly with little purpose or direction, one notices not the new characters as much as the space they inhabit. So much attention in its cinematography is given to accentuating the details, from the crumbling walls of the soon-to-be demolished building to the bare, almost glaring whiteness in the newer building where he both visits his friend Vanda and eventually moves himself. In each place, he repeats the same letter, presumably one written years ago to his now-absent wife — a repetition mostly ignored by his equally distant and lost friends, but one that transforms Ventura’s achingly tender sentiments into a haunting reverie of a man who can no longer exist in the present.
Costa’s unique rhythms, both through his editing and the way his characters drift through space, take the film far outside the realm of realism, attempting to present existence in poverty not through verisimilitude, but through an almost otherworldly representation of time and space with the characters in states of eternal disconnection and aloofness. The style is purposefully distancing, and like Dreyer’s approach to actors in his later films and Bresson’s to his “models,” Costa’s approach can at first appear stilted, awkward, perhaps even labored. But like those directors, Costa demands complete submission from the viewer. The effects of Colossal Youth take time to work their way inside, especially with characters’ relationships to one another often being left unclear: patience here is a necessary virtue.
Despite the rigid movements of the actors and the general lack of emoting — outside of Vanda, who is occasionally boisterous and at times even amusing — Costa strikes at the core of what makes these people tick and the tragedy of their being ignored and abandoned by the government and general population. Their existence is, in reality, a very alien one, as time has lost all meaning and measurements like days, weeks, and years serve no purpose in a life of incessant struggles. Like Ventura, all of these immigrants are lost souls, far away from their homeland. They have long stopped yearning for future happiness and are left only with fading memories of their old friends and communities as they move along in a purgatory between the past and the present. While some have manual labor to fill up for at least some of the time, others like Vanda and Ventura are left in suspended animation, suffering from the effects of past drug abuse and the inexorable pains of shattered dreams and lost loved ones.
With Colossal Youth, Costa has remembered these forgotten souls of the slums and forced us to do so as well, but rather than simply rub our faces in their misery, he conveys both the horror of their confinements and examines the humanity that lurks within them. Working on a wavelength where most directors fear to go, Costa mixes a genuine compassion for his subjects and his singular cinematic style to create a film that is stark yet tender, grueling yet infinitely compassionate, and dreamlike yet deeply rooted in everyday realities.