Colossal Youth: Pedro Costa’s Tough Challenging Chronicle of Lisbon Ghetto

Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth” is a tough, challenging film to watch, but ultimately quite a special and rewarding experience.

I saw the film when it world-premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Fest, during which many critics walked out, even though running time is two and half hours.

Shot in digital video, and displaying minimalism in every term–plot, characterization, and score–the film is set in a Lisbon ghetto and unfolds as an almost surreal existential meditation.

Costa has visited and explored Fontainhas, the Cape Verdean-populated Lisbon district in “Bones” (1997) and “In Vanda’s Room” (2000). Since then, the region has been leveled, forcing thousands of residents to relocate to the northern neighborhood of Casal Boba.

One of the transplants is Ventura, an old man, whom Costa first met during the filming of “Bones,” and who is the closest thing “Colossal Youth” has to a protagonist.  When first seen, Ventura walks around the shabby apartments and ruins of the place.  He talks to his “children,” about the mother who had deserted them all.  Ventura’s wife, Clotilde, abruptly leaves her husband and goes back to Cape Verde.

Costa said in the press conference that visually he was influenced by John Ford, specifically by “Sergeant Rutledge,” and other films that convey the vast open land.

An interesting remark, considering that “Colossal Youth” is set in darkened corridors with soggy lighting that suggest a sense of dread and gloom.

The 15-month shoot and 320 hours of footage have been reduced to 155 minute fictionalized tale of Ventura’s life, which partially draws upon real-life details, such as a work accident in Lisbon.

Costa’s style is naturalistic, avoiding artificial lighting and unnecessary camera movement, favoring long takes over close-ups.

Some critics (not me) find this chronicle of poverty, loneliness and suffering–but also hope and prospects for change– weighed down by the slow, deliberate pacing, using (unfairly) mainstream Hollywood yardstick to evaluate Costa’s work.