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February 21, 2007

Colossal Youth, 2006

colossalyouth.gifOn a derelict building illuminated by the crepuscular glow of a night sky, assorted pieces of furniture and household goods are intermittently discarded from upper level windows, crashing into the razed ruins below. A woman emerges from the shadows, brandishes a small kitchen knife, and recounts her fragmented tale before disappearing, once again, into the cloak of darkness. A deliberative, grey haired man named Ventura hides behind a structural pilaster protruding from a wall - made all the more monolithic and formidable by the low angle shot - as he abstractedly gazes elsewhere, beyond the frame. From this muted, elliptical, and deceptively facile (and seemingly atemporal) opening composition, Pedro Costa establishes the pervasive sense of disposability, social invisibility, longing, and desolation that would define the contextual framework for the film. For the characters in Colossal Youth, the third installment of Costa's loose triptych of quotidian encounters among a community of Cape Verdean itinerant laborers from the shantytown of Fontaínhas in Portugal, the historical landscape of the Cape Verde islands as barren land, exploited colony, commercial way station, slave port, and leprosaria institution is not a forgotten anecdote, but a suffocating reality that continues to weigh on the collective consciousness of its inhabitants, even in their migration and displacement. Within this immateriality of a haunted, unreconciled burden of past - an imprinted spiritual memory of enslavement, isolation, expendability, impermanence, and social rejection - these transitory, everyday interactions may be seen, not as polite, communal gestures, but rather, as personal testimonies of people living in the ever eroding margins of the visible, struggling to emerge from the liminal before receding into the shadows.

At the nucleus of this rended community from the demolished Fontaínhas slum is Ventura, a laborer forced into retirement by disability who has assumed the role of informal village elder to an assortment of uprooted friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, and extended family (a paternal character that evokes the musician with an inordinately large family (from a series of out of wedlock relationships) in Casa de Lava): a recovering drug addict (and titular character of Costa's earlier film, In Vanda's Room) whose awkward maternal instincts reveal her own stunted maturity, a government housing agent bemused by Ventura's vague and often arbitrary requirements for his new home, a daughter still living in the ruins of Fontaínhas awaiting relocation to public housing, an injured laborer undergoing physical rehabilitation who longs for a less hazardous job in his trained vocation as a goldsmith, a museum guard who scuttles Ventura from a gallery exhibiting Diego Velázquez paintings, his lean and angular physicality momentarily cutting a dark and sinuous figure as majestic and transfixing as the works of art that frame him (note Costa's homage to Straub/Huillet in their strategy for full representation (or proportion) framing of the paintings in Cézanne and A Trip to the Louvre), an illiterate migrant worker who enlists Ventura to write a letter to send home to his beloved. However, as Ventura's role transforms from transcriber to author - or more appropriately, ghostwriter - the love letter increasingly takes on the profound weight of his own longing and sense of despair after his lover's abandonment. Inevitably, the repeated recitation (or perhaps, incantation) of Ventura's work-in-progress, visceral prose in subtly alternating forms throughout the film becomes a reflection of the overarching structure of temps morts that characterize the encounters of Colossal Youth itself - the transfiguration of the corporeal into the ethereal through mundane ritual - in all its awkward composition, disarming humility, and poetic ineloquence.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects


A beautiful description of Costa's film, acquarello. I was wondering if you could recall any of the details or even the jist of monologue of the woman (Clotilde or "a woman like her") that opened the film. Once I was finally able to put this opening in temporal and spatial context, I found that I could no longer remember what she had said!

Posted by: phyrephox on Feb 21, 2007 2:33 PM | Permalink

Hmm...I'm hazy on it as well. I was so busy trying to reconcile the image of her with the knife and looking for either confrontation or defensive words, but they were something completely unrelated, like she's tired of her hard life and she's going home.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 21, 2007 9:01 PM | Permalink

I recall she talks about her broad shoulders, how she could swim faster then all the boys back home ...

Also, Andy Rector tells me that the letter comes from the poet Desnos, something he wrote while at war, which just makes this film even more interesting!

Posted by: Zach on Feb 24, 2007 9:17 PM | Permalink

Ah, very interesting information about Desnos indeed. Now the line about sending 100,000 cigarettes actually *almost* makes sense! :)

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 26, 2007 12:54 PM | Permalink

Good stuff, acquerello. Incidentally, I found Desnos' letter

Posted by: Noel Vera on May 08, 2007 5:19 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Noel, and thanks for posting the transcript of the letter. Costa's version seems to be paraphrased, but it's kinda hard to tell, since the film was Portuguese translated to English, and the letter is French translated to English. I don't remember names being mentioned though. Did you get to see this at Jeonju? I didn't see it on your festival coverage...then again, I was mesmerized by grilled squid! :P

Posted by: acquarello on May 08, 2007 8:17 PM | Permalink

It's on my latest post which I'm working on; between that and a few stories I found about Desnos, that poem might be some kind of key to the film...

Posted by: Noel Vera on May 09, 2007 1:56 AM | Permalink

"Crepuscular" describes early morning light, when birds feed -- and nothing of the night.

Posted by: Leonardo on Sep 10, 2007 9:04 AM | Permalink

Actually, crepuscular also suggests twilight, either just before sunrise or after sunset. There is a faint light, either dusk or dawn. The film is ambiguous in this way... But enough of this semantic nitpicking, what did you think of the actual film?

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 10, 2007 9:55 AM | Permalink

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