Ossos is probably my favorite Pedro Costa film that I’ve seen (the others being Colossal Youth and O Sangue). I have to say: though he’s an arthouse staple, he’s an acquired taste that I’m not entirely sure I’ve fully acquired. There are things I love about him: his patience, the lack of non-diegetic music, the locations, the repetition. He’s maybe what Neo-realism wanted to be. Or he’s the Dardenne brothers mixed with a bit of Akerman and Rouch.
Ossos is, as with other Costa films, a simple narrative. A man (Nuno Vaz) takes his girlfriend, Tina’s (Mariya Lipkina) baby, tries to use it for begging, and ultimately tries to sell it. Along the way he meets a nurse, Eduarda (Isabel Ruth) who takes a liking to him and helps him out. Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), Tina’s neighbor and a character quite wary of both Eduarda and the father keeps a close eye on things.
Costa’s definitely got some trademarks. His non-professional actors have a close cousin in Bresson’s. They’re totally unaffected to the point of near non-performances. I buy that the poverty puts them in a state of quiet existentialism, but sometimes it’s too flat for my dramatic liking. Still, he gets great moments from these amateurs.
There’s of course, the long take (more on that below), and then some of his penchants for framing. Here’s one, where he frames a lot of medium wides through doorways, with the frame in the foreground as though we’re peeking through in a point-of-view. Sometimes we are (the first shot below), other times we aren’t (the other two), but regardless, it makes for a pervasive feeling of voyeurism:
Here’s that cyclical structure I mentioned above. Shots are repeated with slight alterations. At the beginning of the film, the father and Tina hold hands on a bus:
And later, in a nearly identical frame, Tina and Cotilde hold hands:
Throughout the film a prostitute, (Ines de Medeiros) roams the streets. At the beginning we see her in an alleyway:
At the end of the film we see her again, dressed the same, with the same man (her pimp?) at the exact same spot in the alley:
All of this works to Costa’s thesis: though something might happen narratively that changes things in these characters lives (and there’s a pretty big moment here in Ossos), nothing changes in the nature of the neighborhood.
Costa frequently shoots in a narrow depth, like the three images below, where characters will move towards and away from camera. He seems to want to stress the literal confined quarters of the locations, but also the tight proximity in terms of neighbor-to-neighbor:
This is the scene where the father takes the baby for the first time. Costa frames it in this wide shot. One thing I really like about it is how he’s not set apart from the other characters. In another film he’d be wearing brighter colors or would never be blocked entirely. Here, he’s got his back to camera (ponytail, frame right), and throughout the shot itself is frequently entirely obscured:
Check out a clip from Ossos HERE.
You’ll notice the long tracking shot that begins at 0:23 and takes the remainder of the clip. That’s about a 2-minute track. It’s a dramatic punctuation: this is the moment that the father first takes the child, but it’s also a way for Costa to show off the neighborhood. This is “strolling cinema” that Zavattini or Bela Tarr would be proud of. The peeling paint, graffiti, colors of the walls and sidewalk that match his pants and jacket are all so tangible.
Also, take a look at that beginning of the clip. It’s a good example of how Costa differs from a lot of filmmakers. Most people employ a time cut there and, at, I don’t know, maybe the 7 second mark cut away to the next shot – we’ve skipped ahead in time, but we get it. Not Costa. He lets the father entirely disappear from frame. The shot takes 23 seconds – at least 10 seconds longer than “it should.” Why? It’s a pacing thing, for one. This is slowness. These things don’t happen rapidly. Secondly, it allows Costa to let that other, minor character come into frame and start picking through the garbage – that action seems as important to the director as the things at the forefront of the plot. Lastly, it forces us to really analyze the slums. By the 15 second mark I couldn’t take my eyes off of the green building towards the middle-right of the frame and in the background.