Friday, December 23, 2011

OSSOS (1997)

Pedro Costa is probably the best director in Portugal under the age of 100. I first started noticing his name a few years ago when film critics were touting his Colossal Youth as one of the greatest yet little-seen films of the decade. That film is now canonized in the Criterion Collection as the final installment of a trilogy of films set in the impoverished Fontainhas section of Lisbon. That trilogy began with Ossos ("Bones"), which reminded me in content of the tales of lowlife youth made by the Dardenne brothers in Belgium. It's the story of the people caught up in a young, poor couple's crisis over a newborn baby. Neither mother (Mariya Lipkina) nor father (Nuno Vaz) has any real idea of what to do with the baby, whom Costa often shows lying around like a piece of junk or mislaid clothing. The most the dad can think of is to carry it around as a panhandling aid. He begs for money to get food for the baby, then spends it on booze. The baby ends up in a hospital, pried by force from the father's hands, and its treatment brings a nurse, Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), into the story. She's more capable and probably more willing to take care of the baby than either of its parents, but the father is determined to make money off the transaction. If he can't sell it to Eduarda, he'll try someone else. The plot is such that the young mother ends up working a day as Eduarda's cleaning lady, finishing her shift by attempting suicide via the kitchen oven. The compassionate nurse tries to befriend this wretch, only to discover the connection between the girl and the guy with the baby who uses her apartment as a crash pad. This connection is already all too well known to the girl's friend Clotilde (Vanda Duarte, a real-life slum dweller and heroin addict who would play herself in Costa's follow-up film), who also figures out that oven's destructive potential....


It's squalid stuff, but Costa aestheticizes it to an almost alarming degree. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel have maximized the slum's picturesque potential; you can tell that they've combed every corner to find the best camera angles, the most cinematic colors and textures of buildings. Ossos has a paradoxical beauty that's perhaps intended as an aid to compassion, and the actors often become icons of mood, frozen in long, mute close-ups. Costa clearly has a powerful pictorial sense, but his film left me wondering whether his painterly compositions honestly represented the experience of living in Fontainhas or the way its people see their slumscape. A rougher, less thoroughly composed style might have been more appropriate, but that depends on Costa's ultimate purpose. Whatever my qualms, Ossos was a beautiful film to look at, and often effectively so. Costa works in a European style that requires attentive viewing, and his direction is assured enough that your attention is usually justified. It's also worth suggesting that Costa himself may have had second thoughts about his approach, since the later Fontainhas films, In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, abandon the widescreen format while reportedly retaining a distinctive aesthetic identity. I was impressed enough by Ossos to see how those other films look.

This trailer uploaded by CineLuso is much more edit-happy than the film itself -- those opening shots of the guy walking down the street are from one long tracking shot -- but it does give you an idea of what goes on in the film. Check it out.

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