By Oana Chivoiu.
Pedro Costa’s landmark is an aesthetic of austerity that resonates with the thematic content in his features dealing with poverty, slum life, and radical limitations. Colossal Youth is a film about loss, a theme that structures the disjointed narrative fluency of the film and anchors its visual practices in photographic stillness and a minimal sense of motion and action. The lead is Ventura, a Cape Verdean immigrant in his sixties living in a slum in Lisbon as he makes the transition to living in a government subsidized apartment. While he refers to himself as “retired laborer,” tiredness is what actually characterizes him—from his sluggish walk to actions and dialogue. The character’s sluggishness seamlessly synchronizes with Costa’s camera work of minimal movement and long takes. Colossal Youth models a gaze focused on visual fixations. Under this gaze, one is invited to reflect on Costa’s meticulous politics and aesthetics of representing the underrepresented subject—the racial other, the postcolonial, and the marginal. The entire feature unfolds as a photographic document that frames the slum as a space of utter limitations and colossal reality.
The film debuts with Ventura’s major loss—his life-long wife leaves him to fulfill the dream of her youth, to go away. While her departure is full of on and mostly off-screen melodrama, the aftermath opens a zone of muted drama. Ventura’s apparently aimless peregrinations inside and very briefly outside the slum form an emotional continuum. When Ventura visits one of his said “children” who works at a museum, we exceptionally get a glimpse of the sky through the branches of trees and more conversation from Ventura than the sporadic monologues and usual silences. The backgrounds of most scenes are provided by walls, door and window frames that induce a consistent effect of entrapment. Empty and enclosed spaces exposed under a diverse degrees of crude illumination, scattered recollections, repeated incantations of somebody else’s love letter, and silence are expressions of the character’s subjectivity.
A series of vignettes show Ventura’s encounters with other characters that he appeals as his children. Their encounters result in minimal verbal exchanges and actions. They do add substance and coherence to the characters but in very sensible quantities. For example, when Ventura helps his illiterate friend Lento to compose a love letter to be sent in Cape Verde, we find Ventura repeatedly reciting the letter for Lento to memorize it. As Ventura’s full of pathos incantations repeat, they tend to add more details and lines that seem to speak about Ventura’s emotional status rather than Lento’s. The construction of Ventura’s sense of presence relies on a series of moments of absence—silences, other characters’ monologues in Ventura’s quiet presence, Ventura as conduit of communication between the slum and home through Lento’s letter. One can easily notice that fragmentation and elusiveness are overarching principles in Colossal Youth.
The use of an unprofessional cast endorses the feature as a more authentic agency for representing marginality. Recurrent and prolonged moments of silence, the material austerity of spaces Ventura navigates (and the limited register of spaces accessible to him) ground the character in a very intense sense of presence that elicits an audience’s interest and attention. Outside-slum reality is almost effaced along with its centrality vis-à-vis the slum. The center and margins binary is significantly ignored. The slum and its upgraded version are the only visually accessible spaces. The proportions and the framing used in the construction of these spaces are elements that call the attention to the power relations controlling them.
A pervasive sense of limitation is embedded in Costa’s sophisticated design of cinematic space. The idea of a space of representation is literal and gets as much camera attention as Ventura’s wanderings. The maze appearance of the slum units and the circulation from one enclosed space to another provide a view of Ventura’s ideological subject positions. The slum spaces appear small and low relative to Ventura’s stature, which in contrast appears very tall. The slum resembles a carceral environment. In contrast, when Ventura contemplates the new government subsidized buildings, he appears disproportionately small and overwhelmed by the huge proportions of the building. The same relativity effect is applied to the degrees of illumination in the slum and in the subsidized building. The dim and granulated light in the slum vis-à-vis the bright light in the government apartment offer contrasting perspectives on Ventura’s skin color and race. On the perfectly white walls lavishly exposed to natural light, Ventura’s blackness is accentuated and makes a powerful contrast. Under the raw light of the slum interiors, Ventura’s skin color is more nuanced and comes in different shades of warm brown that seem to echo the Cape Verdean sun. The shifting variables of the two platforms of representation endorse Costa’s critique of the absence of a space of self-representation and expression for the postcolonial subject. The most productive relationship in Costa’s feature develops between Ventura and the spaces he is situated in. A particular attention goes to framing, which itself is a theme of rich experimentation. Colossal Youth accomplishes with great artistic and political insight a difficult project—to represent presence in absent spaces.
Oana Chivoiu is a Ph.D. candidate in Theory and Cultural Studies at Purdue University where she completes her dissertation on crowds during the Victorian era. Her research interests include Victorian studies, film criticism, postcolonial literatures, and post-communism. She has been a contributor to Paris and Las Vegas volumes of the World Film Locations series, Film International, and Short Film Studies.
Colossal Youth was released as part of the Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa DVD box set by the Criterion Collection.