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Our Films Should Avenge: An Interview with Pedro Costa

One of the great pleasures of my professional career occurred earlier this year when I had the chance to interview Portuguese master-filmmaker Pedro Costa. The following interview originally appeared in Time Out Chicago to coincide with the local premiere of his latest masterpiece Horse Money.

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MGS: Horse Money obviously grew out of Colossal Youth to some extent yet it also differs in that it feels like a more direct confrontation with the legacies of Portugal’s fascist and colonialist past. Why did you move more in this direction?

PC: The starting point of this film was the stories told by Ventura. We were in the same place when the Carnation Revolution broke out in Portugal in April of 1974. I had the chance to be a young boy in a revolution and suddenly I could discover and experience politics, music, films, girls, all at the same time. I was happy, I was yelling in the streets, I was taking part in the occupations of schools and factories. I was 13 and it blinded me. It took me three decades to realize that my friend, Ventura, was in the same places in tears and terrified, hiding with his comrades like him from immigration. He told me his memories of a time spent in what he calls his “prison,” where he fell into a long deep sleep. I can hardly say more, it’s all in the film, and the shooting was devastating, we shook a lot. Ventura is desperately trying to remember, but this is not necessarily the best thing. So I think we made this film to forget. Really to forget, and to be done with it.

MGS: The film takes place in the present yet Ventura refers to the date as March of 1975. It occurred to me that his hospital stay could be a re-enactment of the trip to the military hospital he describes after the knife fight from 40 years earlier. Did you intend to meld the past and present?

PC: But there’s no other way. There’s no use to try and make a film about the past; it’s stupid and impossible. Cinema is always the present. Old mistakes are today’s failures. History is always now. That’s what the Spanish writer Unamuno used to call the tragic sense of life. Horse Money will always play in an everlasting present.

MGS: The song “Alto Cutelo” by the band Os Tubarões is extraordinary. How did you discover it and how did you hit upon the idea of using it to score a montage of immigrants posing in their homes for your camera?

PC: Os Tubarões (The Sharks) were quite famous, probably the greatest of all the bands of the African nations that were colonized by the Portuguese. Of course they were admired by all the African immigrants: they made them sing and dance and they sung their tragic condition in the most epic way. We had already used a Tubarões song in Colossal Youth. When Ventura is ill in his wooden shack with his comrade Lento and plays an LP on his pickup, the song is “Labanta Braço,” an homage to Amilcar Cabral, the mythical freedom fighter, the founder of the Republic of Guinea and Cape Verde. This sequence is probably what’s left from the project I had with Gil Scott-Heron. That film would have been a two-hour prayer or a rap, a lament…

MGS: The shot of Ventura leaving the hospital is beautiful and cathartic but it is followed by a more ambiguous shot of him looking at knives in a display window. Is this latter shot a reference to Fritz Lang’s M and why did you choose to end the film this way?

PC: Let’s say Ventura comes out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He’s ready for action and he needs a weapon. He’s bloodthirsty. I didn’t think about M but perhaps you’re right mentioning Mr. Lang: his films always reminded us that cinema has a lot to do with justice. Our films should avenge.

MGS: Your use of depth staging has always been impressive. Now that Godard has proven it can be done inexpensively, would you consider making a movie in 3D?

PC: For now, I’ve enough real problems with 2D to be bothered with imaginary ones.

Information about Horse Money‘s home video release will eventually appear on Cinema Guild’s website here. You can watch the trailer for Horse Money below:

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E.U. Film Festival Week Three: Vote for Pedro!

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At Cine-File today I have a review of Horse Money, the latest film from Portuguese master Pedro Costa, which receives its Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival tonight. It’s Costa’s fourth consecutive fiction feature to examine the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants living in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas (which hopefully means the Criterion Collection will upgrade their Fontainhas trilogy DVD box-set to a new quadrilogy Blu-ray set) and, in many ways, it’s the most accessible since the first, 1997’s Ossos. It also forms a diptych with Costa’s last fiction feature, 2006’s Colossal Youth, since both take the retired construction worker credited only as “Ventura” as their subject. This is flat-out amazing filmmaking, folks — as poetic as it is political, and informed by a cinephilia that is put to very different ends than the self-congratulatory, spot-the-reference, Tarantino/Simpsons variety that has become depressingly commonplace in contemporary American culture. Note, for instance, the way Ventura is alternately lit and framed to resemble both Darby Jones in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (i.e., as he wanders the halls of a hospital in a zombie-like trance) at the film’s beginning and Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (i.e., made to seem heroic) during the film’s astonishing climactic elevator/”exorcism” scene — and what each of these visual quotations reveals about his character.

Both Costa and John Ford frame their protagonists from below but light them from above, making the characters seem heroic:

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I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Costa for Time Out Chicago this week. I asked him if Horse Money‘s final shot, which depicts Ventura looking at knives in a store’s display window, was an homage to a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s M. He said that it wasn’t a conscious reference but added that I may have been right to bring up the man he reverentially calls “Mr. Lang” (whose films were so concerned with “justice”) before adding the killer line, “Our films should avenge.” You can read the complete interview here.

Darby Jones as Carrefour in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie:

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Peter Lorre, as the child killer Hans Beckert, looking at knives in a display window in Fritz Lang’s M:

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CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

Here are a dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the 50th(!) Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking-and-sounding movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. All but the Alain Resnais and the Pedro Costa films played this past May at Cannes, which struck me as having an unusually strong lineup, or at least an unusually strong lineup of movies by directors I admire.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)

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One of my favorite French films of the 21st century is the adaptation of the second (and more obscure) version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley made by Pascale Ferran, a female director about whom I know virtually nothing. Her latest, Bird People, got high marks from critics when it screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. It’s an intriguing-sounding comedy about an American businessman (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles) on a 24-hour layover in Paris. The entire film apparently takes place in Charles de Gaulle airport and a nearby Hilton Hotel. This is not a prequel to Takashi Miike’s excellent Bird People in China.

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)

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This is the third part of a trilogy of films by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. The first two parts include a folkloric meditation on Aboriginal characters in Australia’s pre-colonial past (Twelve Canoes) and a powerful study of the conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal characters in the outback during the early 20th century (The Tracker). Charlie’s Country, like its predecessors, also stars David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the script and won the best actor award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), but tackles issues of racism and the legacy of colonialism from the vantage point of the present.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/USA)

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An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) performs in a play that made her a star 20 years previously — only in a part supporting that of the main character who is now incarnated by an up-and-coming actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) reminiscent of her younger self. This sounds an awful lot like All About Eve to me but early critical notices have compared this to meta films like Persona. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has always been good with actors and in addition to the exciting prospect of seeing him reteam with Binoche (after the sublime Summer Hours), this also promises to be something of a breakthrough for Kristen Stewart, who plays a personal assistant to Binoche’s character.

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)

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The single movie I most want to see play at CIFF is Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some have whispered, last) feature — a 3-D essay that has something to do with a talking dog and the conflict between a married couple. Goodbye to Language was given a rock-star’s welcome at Cannes — in spite of the fact that the 83-year-old director didn’t attend — and generated more positive reviews than usual (many of which marveled at Godard’s use of 3-D technology) for one of the world’s most divisive filmmakers. Still, in spite of the praise, in spite of the Cannes Jury Prize, in spite of the fact that 20th Century friggin’ Fox picked up distribution rights, the question arises: will Chicagoans ever have the chance to see this in 3-D, the way it was intended to be seen? None of the Chicago venues that have screened Godard’s latest works in the past 20 years (Facets, the Music Box, the Siskel Center, etc.) are equipped to show movies in 3-D. If CIFF doesn’t scoop this up, it will be a tragedy for local cinephiles.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

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The great Portuguese director Pedro Costa returns to narrative filmmaking (or at least docu-fiction) for the first time in nearly a decade with this continuation of his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy (are you ready to upgrade that box-set, Criterion — preferably to Blu-ray?). This film, which recently snagged Costa the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, has something to do with Ventura, the elderly Cape Verdean-immigrant protagonist of Costa’s Colossal Youth from 2006, wandering around a hospital and the ruins of the former slum where he used to live (the destruction of which was documented in 2000’s superb In Vanda’s Room). In Colossal Youth, Ventura was a non-actor essentially playing himself but part of what made that film so fascinating was Costa’s insistence on lighting and framing his physiognomy so that he resembled Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. I can’t wait to see what Costa does with actor and character here. Intriguingly, Variety said this was “less overtly difficult” and even more “striking” than Costa’s other Fontainhas missives.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

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Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso burst onto the international scene with his formidable 2004 experimental/narrative hybrid film Los Muertos. His penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue and narrative ambiguity made his work destined for the condescending “slow cinema” tag. Yet the fact that his latest stars Viggo Mortensen (a fine actor and a bona fide movie star) also caused some speculation that the result might be some sort of sell-out. Fortunately, advance word from Cannes has pegged this movie — about a father and daughter journeying to an “unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization” as nothing other than a typically spellbinding Lisandro Alonso film.

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)

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Alain Resnais’s final film, another in a series of Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, racked up accolades and a couple of prizes when it premiered in Berlin in February. Less than a month later, its creator — one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — had passed away at the age of 91. Since this theater-set tale is centered on a protagonist who only has a few months left to live, it will be hard not to view it as something like a last testament, although one should remember that this would have been true of many of Resnais’s films (including such death-haunted masterworks as Love Unto Death and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet). This stars the inevitable Sabine Azema, Resnais’s frizzy-haired wife and muse, who has been his regular leading lady for decades.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/USA)

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Like all “late Cronenberg,” Maps to the Stars has typically divided critics, but it has its share of ardent supporters, and the premise (a dark satire of a stereotypical Hollywood family that also marks the first time the director ever set down a tripod on U.S. soil) is irresistible. The impressive cast includes Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, the last of whom nabbed the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for playing an unhinged actress. If this turns up at CIFF, it will likely only be as a “special gala presentation.”

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)

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Mike Leigh is England’s greatest living filmmaker and Mr. Turner, his first film since 2010’s superb Another Year, sounds like another winner. A dream project of Leigh’s for many years, this biopic of 19th English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) supposedly investigates the artistic process against a richly detailed historical backdrop in a manner similar to Topsy-Turvy, one of the director’s masterpieces. Spall won Best Actor at Cannes for what has been described as a towering performance. He’s always been a superb character actor and I look forward to seeing what he can do in a leading role.

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

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A lot of commentators thought this Canadian melodrama had the Palm d’Or sewn up after it premiered at Cannes but, come awards night, writer/director Xavier Dolan found himself “only” sharing third place with Jean-Luc Godard. That’s probably for the best because, at 25-years-old, Dolan’s best work surely lies ahead of him. Dolan makes stylistically and emotionally brash films that have earned him comparisons to everyone from Godard to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-Wai. Many feel that this character study, which focuses on a single mother, her delinquent teenage son and a mousy neighbor, is Dolan’s most assured work to date. As an admirer of the director’s first three films, that makes me eager to check this out.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

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Bamako, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s previous film, was a complex, heady, experimental, and all-around disturbing indictment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This belated follow-up, about jihadists taking over a rural town in norther Mali, didn’t win any awards when it debuted at Cannes but was considered by some to be the very best film in the Official Competition. The Variety review called it “a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators.” Given the singular brand of political filmmaking on display in Bamako, this sounds, at the very least, like a provocative ride.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

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As someone who admired each of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s four previous features but felt that he really made a quantum leap with the last one (2011’s masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), I couldn’t be more excited about this three-hour-plus, Palm d’Or-snatching follow-up. The plot concerns an actor-turned-hotel owner and his tempestuous relationships with his young wife and recently divorced sister. Expect a slow pace, impeccable cinematography (a former photographer, Ceylan has arguably the best compositional eye in contemporary cinema) and lots and lots of psychodrama.


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