The ghostly realism of



The work of Portuguese director Pedro Costa proceeds by slow, measured steps. Although each film enacts a formal departure from the previous one, taken as a whole, the trajectory displays an ever-distilled vision that brings into closer focus the everyday lives of Lisbon’s poor, while opening up immense historical vistas—the African diaspora, the slave trade—in which they might be set. Renowned among cinephiles for his stringent, monumental ‘Fontaínhas trilogy’, Costa remains largely unknown beyond that world. How and where should his oeuvre be situated? By what scale of values should his work be judged? Attempts to define his cinema in terms of conventional categories—geo-cultural context, subject matter and settings, cinematic modes, the personalized film language of the auteur—have a disconcerting tendency to destabilize the categories themselves.

Context, first of all. Costa’s work might initially be situated in the reflexive tradition of contemporary European cinema, grounded in the critical canon-making of the new wave and neo-realist theorist-practitioners. His early career benefited in a general sense from the plentiful eec funding that helped to sustain Portuguese film schools and support a rebirth of national cinema after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Yet Portugal, as diagnosed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the country’s leading social philosopher, has long existed within two zones, or time-spaces: not just a European but a ‘colonial zone’, spanning the oceans; and occupying peripheral and backward positions within both. For Portugal, as for its former colonies, ‘lagging behind meant having a problematic past’—and ‘as a problem, the past became an inescapable part of the present.’footnote1 Within the Lusophone world, post-colonial relations between Portugal and Brazil have patterned those of the uk and us—the former colony soaring above its one-time ruler in world importance and cultural production—though cast in a more disorderly, archaic and surprising register, within which Africa bears a decisive weight. Not just the European New Wave but the revolutionary aesthetics of Brazil’s cinema novo had a formative influence on the generation of Portuguese directors that immediately preceded Costa’s, including his gifted and idiosyncratic teacher, the ethnographic film-maker Antonio Reis.footnote2

The inescapable presence of the problematic colonial past, as de Sousa puts it, forms a subtext in much contemporary Portuguese cinema.footnote3 Yet Costa’s deliberate and sustained choice of Cape Verdean settings and subjects represents a different type of commitment. His Fontaínhas trilogy was set in the jerry-built homes and alleyways of Lisbon’s hidden ghetto. When the neighbourhood was torn down and its residents shipped out to bright and flimsy high-rises on the city’s edge, Costa filmed the destruction and followed his characters out, documenting the loss of a group made immigrants once again. This persistent and patient gaze on a particular locale and its inhabitants marks out his singular approach. Costa’s subjects are, as Jacques Rancière has noted, ‘workers without work’, without a working class or class struggle, seemingly trapped in the ahistorical time and space of the everyday.footnote4 In a recent essay, Emilie Bickerton has considered Costa’s work in the context of a new genre of post-industrial ‘proletkino’ cinema, discernible in the films of the Dardennes, Guédiguian and Loach.footnote5 As Costa himself has put it: ‘Most of mankind’s stories—I mean the stories of the lower classes—either have been told wrongly or haven’t been told at all. So cinema has to step in.’footnote6 Yet as Bickerton suggested, Costa’s formal experimentalism and use of multiple cinematic modes and genres—fiction, ethnography, documentary, realism and surrealism; noir, zombie, melodrama, quest—also made him an outlier in this company of naturalistic feature-makers.

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