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Two By Criterion
Published on March 28, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over the past couple months, I've worked my way through two sets of films released by the Criterion Collection, the premier DVD releasing company in the country. The sets introduced me to two filmmakers I was mostly unfamiliar with: Pedro Costa and Aki Kaurismaki. 

Let's start with Pedro Costa, since he's the filmmaker I delved into first. Criterion released three of Costa's films in a box set titled "Letters from Fontainhas," after the Lisbon slum where the films are set. The Portuguese director cast residents of the Fontainhas in key roles, and although the first film, "Ossos," is structured around a fictional story, while the two later films, "In Vanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth," are an unusual hybrid of documentary and fiction, with the residents largely playing themselves, or at least versions of themselves. Many of the residents are impoverished and addicted to drugs, and hail from the island of Cape Verde.

Costa's films are good examples of the burgeoning slow cinema movement, though the term is so broad as to be almost meaningless. Movies in this genre tend to feature long takes, contemplative (some might say boring) silences, stunning scenery and locations and relatively thin plots.

"Ossos," from 1997, is the most conventional of Costa's three films, and tells a simple story about a young man who tries to sell his baby after the mother tries to commit suicide. The next film, "In Vanda's Room," has a lengthy running time, and is named after Vanda, a heroin addict who spends a lot of time shooting up in her room and talking with her fellow heroin addicts. The woman cast as Vanda, Vanda Duarte, is essentially playing herself after appearing in "Ossos" as a friend of the suicidal young mother. Vanda reappears in "Colossal Youth," but in this film she has kicked drugs and is the mother of a young daughter.

The three films are about the residents of Fontainhas, but also about the housing development where they live. In the second film, the housing development is being torn down to make way for a new development, and in "Colossal Youth" the characters are in the process of relocating to sterile, new lodgings that stand in stark contrast to the grimy slums they've long called home. Interestingly, the characters seem to miss the slums, preferring the messy proximity to friends and relatives to the more spacious, less-lived in digs with which they've been provided.

"Letters from Fontainhas" is an achievement, but one I have mixed feelings about. The films are long and slow-moving, and each had long stretches that I found somewhat tedious. "In Vanda's Room," in particular, tried my patience - listening to Vanda ramble on got on my nerves and caused my mind to wander. On the other hand, the films contain some amazing imagery and are a pretty effective immersion experience - after watching them, you really feel like you have a feel for the daily rhythms and hopes and dreams of the people who call Fontainhas home. The films are unforgettable, but also difficult, and although I'm convinced of Costa's talent and vision, I'm somewhat wary of the rest of his work. I'm sure it's worthwhile, but on the basis of "Letters from Fontainhas," I'm sure it's frustrating, too.

The other set I watched was Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy. I'd seen one Kaurismaki film, the 2002 comedy "The Man Without a Past," which I thought was OK. The Proletariat Trilogy, however, I loved. Each film is bleak and deadpan, funny and despairing, with a general theme about the dehumanizing nature of blue-collar work. Kaurismaki is easily compared to the American director Jim Jarmusch, but he's more political (although Jarmusch's most recent film, "The Limits of Control," was fairly political) and a little less warm.

The three films in the set are "Shadows in Paradise," "Ariel" and "The Match-Factory Girl." The 1988 film "Ariel," in particular, totally blew me away. The story revolves around a miner named Taisto who loses his job when the mine closes, then watches his friend kill himself in a diner after giving his Cadillac and urging him to leave town for greener pastures. Taisto follows this advice, but is mugged, and loses his life savings. In the city, he meets a woman and falls in love with her and, unable to find a job, embarks on a life of crime. "Ariel's" plot is depressing, but the film is frequently hilarious, and I found it beautiful to look at. Kaurismaki is also aided by an able cast comprised of actors who are unable to crack a smile.

The last film, "The Match-Factory Girl," is even bleaker, and although it is funny, the laughs stick in the throat a bit more. This first half of the film concerns a young woman who is mistreated by her parents, despite supporting them through her job at the match factory, and gets impregnated by a cruel man who mistook her for a prostitute. The second half of the film shows what happens when the young woman decides to take revenge upon everyone who has slighted her; as Roger Ebert put it, the young woman gives as good as she gets. The way that she  and the film turn the tables on viewers made "The Match-Factory Girl" a lot more subversive than I expected. What's amazing is how lean the film is - Kaurismaki manages to tell his story with very little dialogue, in about 70 minutes. For such a short film, it really packs a punch.

Unlike the Pedro Costa set, the Kaurismaki set made me want to watch more of Kaurismaki's films, and I'm hoping his new film "Le Havre" eventually makes its way to Albany.

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