In a lovely new box set Criterion presents Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa, which includes Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth spread over three dual-layer discs in this four-disc set. Ossos is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 while the other two are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1. The latter two break Criterion’s usual tradition with 1.33:1 transfers and are both not window boxed. Ossos has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
They’re all, in the end, probably about as good as they’re going to get on DVD. In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth were both shot on DV so the source is standard definition digital which means they’re limited in how good they’re going to look. In Vanda’s Room probably presents the most problematic transfer as it’s the only one that is interlaced, which again I assume is in the source. It presents all sorts of noise and trailing effects, and compression artifacts get quite heavy in dark scenes but are noticeable to certain degrees throughout the film. Colossal Youth actually looks a bit better, a key improvement being the image is progressive this time around. I suspect a different, better quality camera was used, but it still has issues yet again due to the source. Artifacts and noise are still present and rather harsh in darker sequences. Since the source of these two films are digital no restoration needed to be done, though the booklet mentions colour correction was applied under the eye of Costa and colours do look rather good, especially when one considers the dark and rather drab setting of the community. Blacks vary wildly, though, sometimes looking fairly deep, while looking crushed during other scenes.
Ossos, on the other hand, looks much better since it comes from a film source. It presents a sharper image with fewer artifacts, stronger colours, and deeper blacks. The print is in fantastic shape, looking to have been vigorously restored.
Ossos would probably benefit the most from a Blu-ray upgrade but the others won’t, maybe getting a small boost if they were allowed more disc space, so I’m not too surprised this set isn’t getting a Blu-ray release. But I’m still quite happy with them, Ossos looking particularly good upscaled, and the other two, while they have their ugly side, are still quite watchable, with Colossal Youth not looking too shabby upscaled as well.
Detailed reviews of individual discs: 7/10
In Vanda's Room
All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s box set Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa includes a large wealth of supplements spread across its four discs, with one lone disc devoted completely to supplements. Other supplements have been spread across the other three discs, focusing specifically (for the most part) on their respective films.
The first disc, which presents Ossos, has quite a few intriguing supplements on it, starting with an exclusive interview, in English, between Pedro Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin, running 33-minutes. For whatever reason I actually wasn’t looking forward to this interview and I can’t say why that is but thankfully my initial reservations were unfounded. In it Gorin asks him about his films and his technique, with Ossos receiving the focus naturally. Costa talks about the documentary aspect of it (and I guess the trilogy as a whole) and also his reservations or possible guilt, about using bigger crews on films. He talks about the look of his film, mise-en-scène, and his style, along with what’s he’s striving for in his films. It’s a rather nice, informative interview with the director and certainly takes the place of a commentary.
The next interview features Costa’s friend João Bérnard de Costa, former head of the Portuguese Cinematheque in Lisbon. In this 9-minute interview recorded in 2004 (da Costa passed away in 2009.) In his discussion of the film it’s very apparent he adores it, talking about the characters, their presentation, how they interact, their “toughness,” the framing, and even gives a wonderful explanation about the meaning of the film’s title, with references from another article on the film. It’s an intelligent, rather illuminating discussion, that in and of itself actually made me appreciate the film even more than I already had. I quite liked this short little piece.
The next interview, also filmed in 2004, is with cinematographer Emmanuel Machul, whose also worked with the likes of Robert Bresson and Maurice Pialat, and also worked on Costa’s film Casa de Lava. In the less than 8-minute interview he talks about the conditions of the shoot in Fontainhas, which were incredibly difficult because of the limited space and tight corridors of the neighbourhood, and also on how Costa works. In the last couple minutes of the interview he then talks about his favourite shots in the film and the sound in the film. It feels brief but expands on Costa’s previous interview in certain areas.
Jeff Wall Video Essay is a 13-minute video essay by artist Jeff Wall on the film. He recalls first seeing it (after reading a review about it) and then what struck him about it, specifically the slowness, the look, the narrative, and the characters that appear in the film yet don’t “do much.” From that last part he expands on Costa’s “development” of his characters, or more the lack thereof, where he keeps his characters mysterious and makes sure we never really get to know , keeping them at a distance, though notes one character, a nurse, is the exception to this. Bresson, who mentioned a bit in the supplements, is also brought up in comparison. It’s a fairly good analysis of the film and Costa’s style, well worth viewing.
The disc then closes with photographs by Marianna Viegas, a small collection of black and white photos taken during filming.
The second disc, which features In Vanda’s Room, has only one substantial supplement but it certainly is a big one: an audio commentary featuring Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin. It’s not a true commentary and is actually a conversation/interview between Gorin and Costa that’s been edited together to cover the length of the film from various conversations done in different locations. It’s not screen-specific but it has been edited together in such a way that what is being discussed can pertain to what is going on onscreen where appropriate.
I’m actually a little conflicted about this track to be honest. At just shy of three hours it can come off a little bloated, tiring, and it does get repetitive; there’s a few times where Costa talks about the lousy sound and how he had to edit in different background sound effects of the neighbourhood being torn down. But there’s a wealth of information in here about Costa’s style, why he moved to digital after Ossos, the technical aspects shooting that way, plenty of technical details, along with influences, and his thoughts and opinions on cinema and filmmaking. Costa also talks of his experience in the Fontainhas village/settlement and he talks fondly of the people there and the relationships he built up with them, though breaking them into the groups ?the boys? and ?the girls?, and he also talks about the conditions in which they live and poverty in general. While he covers a lot, Costa can ramble on, with Gorin interjecting with a comment or question here and there, and I did zone out a few times admittedly, but I have to say I like Costa, who is incredibly passionate, fairly humourous, and intelligent, making the track not as monotonous as it could have been. Still, most may want to sample it first through the commentary index as it can ramble a bit.
The remaining supplement on the disc is a tiny photo gallery featuring a small number of black and white photos taken by Richard Dumas from the location of the shoot, with Costa in many of them. We then get a theatrical trailer for the film that I think comes from Japan, though I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong.
The third disc, featuring Colossal Youth, again contains one significant supplement, forgetting the trailer, which is a continuation of the interview between Jean-Pierre Gorin and Pedro Costa. This one, running 23-minutes, felt to be the least significant of the series, though no less worthwhile. Costa explains his intent behind the film and how he came to use Ventura as the main character. He talks about the changes in the neighbourhood and how that’s effected the residents, including the new apartments, and then of course talks again about the conditions of this particular shoot, the opening and ending, and even has a particularly horrific story about a resident that set his apartment on fire, which he would use as a setting for one scene. Gorin is again primarily the interviewer and only throws a few comments in here and there with the odd question. This is purely Costa’s show and he again offers some decent insight into his technique and this particular film. Along with the other interviews in the set it’s worth viewing and wraps them up fairly well.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer for the film, which looks to come from Japan, but again I’m not sure.
The set then comes with a fourth dual-layer disc, devoted to the remaining supplements.
The first supplement is a selected-scene audio commentary for Colossal Youth by critic Cyril Neyrat and author-philospher Jacques Rancière. The two view five sequences which include the opening, the sequence in the museum, one of the last scenes in the burnt out apartment plus a couple others, and runs about 38-minutes. They open with how they both discovered Costa and the quickly move to what they so admire about Costa and Colossal Youth in particular, specifically the technical details including his framing, use of light, and how he can convey so much in the image, including striking political statements. There’s disappointingly very little in the way of scholarly supplements on the set, with a couple on the disc for Ossos and then this commentary, but this track does offer quite a bit of information and those that find they maybe haven’t quite warmed up to Costa’s style may find quite a bit from it. I think by Colossal Youth I had warmed up to it but this track seemed to help quite a bit more.
The next supplement is probably one of the best ones on here, an 80-minute documentary called All Blossoms Again. Shot during the filming of Colossal Youth we finally get to see everything only talked about and alluded to in the films and other features in the disc. In what is probably a homage of sorts to Ossos we see Costa take the daily commute to and from the shoot on the bus and we also get a lot of footage of him in the editing room with the film which was apparently made over the period of a couple of years, best evidenced humourously in a moment where Costa tries to recall another scene they shot, surprised when he realizes it was over a year ago when they did it. We see him work with Ventura on the dialogue and what is going to be happening in a particular scene, and we also get to see how he was able to set up the lighting for sequences. Costa gives some interviews but, in what I found the most intriguing aspect, he also gives us a bit of a tour of the neighbourhood, which even changed drastically during the filming of Colossal Youth. Since the films are so claustrophobic, packing the camera in the tighter spaces, never allowing us to see what’s on the outskirts, it was interesting to see a wider picture of the area, giving me a better idea of the surroundings. It’s long, and it’s pacing is only a touch faster than Costa’s films, but I found it rather good and certainly worth viewing.
The remaining supplements on the disc are all short films by the director, starting with the 18-minute Tarrafal, focusing on a character who, as I understand it, has received a type of “extradition” or “expulsion” notice to be sent back to Cape Verde. Wandering around on the outskirts of the community he eventually comes across Ventura and his friend Alberto, who are hunting, who then talk about their harsh treatment in the past on the island, and suggest the island as a hellish prison. There’s a companion piece with another short film called The Rabbit Hunters, which tells the same situation but focuses on Ventura and Alberto, the notes stating it’s a “reworking” of the material shot for Tarrafal, having the two sort of “wander” about almost “otherworldly.” Though both have different themes and stories they both look at people displaced, though both have a sense of dread hanging overhead.
The final short film is a 35-minute piece called Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female, which is made up of “outtakes” from Colossal Youth and In Vanda’s Room. Apparently made to be displayed in a museum the piece is a split screen presentation presenting a sequence on either side, showing the inside and outside of the neighbourhood at the same time (through most of it anyways, there’s a few moments where both screen present just interiors) with the intention that the editing is “left up to the viewers.” An audio introduction from Costa explains the reasoning behind, thinking it would be something interesting to do, and also talks a bit about the sound mix, which he intended to be more musical. It’s an interesting inclusion worth looking at once, though it might be more interesting on a museum wall.
The set then comes with a 43-page booklet with a number of great essays. Cyril Neyrat’s offering covers the film and Costa’s filmmaking career, while Ricardo Matos Cabo writes about Fontainhas, the people, and its presentation in the films. Luc Sante, Thom Andersen, and Mark Peranson all write about Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth respectively, each offering their thoughts and analysis of the films. The booklet then concludes with an essay by Bernard Eisenschitz about Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters that first appeared in a book on Costa.
The whole booklet is an excellent read, filling in that analytical void I felt the set had. Despite that feeling the supplements found over the whole set are worth going through and do help in better appreciating Costa’s work. And despite some repetition and some dry moments over the hours upon hours of material found on this set, it’s made all the easier by the fact that Costa, who appears in the bulk of the material is a rather charming individual.
Detailed reviews of individual discs: 9/10
In Vanda's Room