Written, shot, and directed by Pedro Costa, No Quatro da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) is the story of a heroin addict struggling with her addiction as she lives in a community of shantytowns near Lisbon. The second part of a trilogy of films set in the Fontainhas slums, the film is a mixture of documentary and fiction as it explores the struggles of Vanda Duarte who had previously appeared in Costa’s film Ossos. Also starring Lena and Zita Duarte. No Quatro da Vanda is an entrancing yet bleak film from Pedro Costa.
Set in the Fontainhas slums near Lisbon as houses are being demolished, the film is a look into the life of Vanda Duarte as she is dealing with an addiction to heroin as she lives with her sister Zita and their mother Lena where the Duartes and various neighbors deal with their lives just as their homes are being destroyed nearby. It is a film that doesn’t have much of a plot in favor of just capturing things at the moment in a somewhat-fragmented style where it plays into Vanda’s daily routine as she sells lettuce and cabbage to various neighbors while she and her sister Zita do whatever they can to smoke heroin and survive while often arguing who gets the last gram. The film also go into the lives of the Duartes’ neighbors with some trying to fix up their home but also deal with despair with buildings around them being torn down as they lament over the state of their lives.
Pedro Costa’s direction is ravishing in its overall presentation as it is shot entirely on digital video in a 1:33:1 aspect ratio that definitely recalls some of the elements of the Dogme 95 movement. Yet, Costa takes an approach similar to the style of Yasujiro Ozu where everything is in a static shot whether it is in a close-up or in a medium shot as the camera never moves with very few wide shots. This approach isn’t easy at times due to the lack of conventional elements expected in a film yet it adds to this air of realism that Costa is aiming for as it is a style that allows him to do long shots where shots would range from a few minutes where the camera doesn’t move. Also serving as cinematographer, the look of the film in its digital video presentation has Costa aiming for a crude yet realistic look where he shoots everything with available light or candle lights instead of aiming for something that requires lots of lighting fixtures. It is in that approach similar to what Dogme 95 does in shooting in available light that allows Costa to capture something on location where so much is happening.
Costa’s direction might seem exploitive as it play into Vanda’s own addiction issues as well as capturing other drug addictions in their world but there is a commentary about the fact that these people who live in this world that is removed from the conventions of society. A lot of the inhabitants in Fontainhas are immigrants from African countries as well as poor Portuguese who are unable to live by the rules as much what Costa shoots is stark and at times discomforting. Even with its 171-minute running time where the pacing can be sluggish at times due to its presentation and bleak subject matter. Costa still uses this approach to showcase this world where this a tight-knit community who care about one another despite the fact that a lot of them are moving out amidst the demolition of homes around them. With the aid of editors Dominique Auvray and Patricia Saramago in maintaining this fragmented style to play into this unconventional approach to the pacing but also for the fact that a lot of the cuts are straightforward. The sound work of Philippe Morel, Mathieu Imbert, and Stephan Konken also add to this naturalistic tone as a lot of the sound that is presented in a room or outside a building is captured that plays into this realistic approach that Costa wants including its music soundtrack where a lot of it is played on location.
Since many of the people in the film that Costa profiles are non-actors with the exception of Vanda Duarte, it does maintain that sense of naturalism into the film as the people featured in the film such as Diogo Miranda, Fernando Paixao, Evangelina Nelas, Manuel Gomes Miranda, Pedro Lanban, and Paulo Jorge Goncalves showcase not just a lot of nuances into their plight but also moments that do play into how they maintain this sense of community in the neighborhood. Paolo Nunes and Antonio “Paulo” Semedo are amazing as fellow neighbors who are trying to clean up their home and make it hospitable although they’re also addicts who lament over the world around them. Lena Duarte is brilliant as Zita and Vanda’s mother who tries to keep the peace while dealing with the state of the world around her as well as her daughters’ addiction while Zita is a firecracker who often has spats with Vanda while also carrying supplies including aluminum foil they need to cook heroin for smoking. Finally, there’s Vanda Duarte as this woman who is struggling with her own addictions while knowing she has a problem while her own daily routines are fascinating as it includes scraping heroin grams from a phonebook page as well as selling lettuce and cabbage as she can be a fiery person one day but then be someone that is kind as well.
No Quatro da Vanda is an incredible film from Pedro Costa. While it is not an easy film to watch due to its near-three hour run time, long takes, minimalist approach, and sluggish pacing. It is still a film that still showcases a world that is removed from the conventions of society and how these people endure despite the awful circumstances they’re in whether by their own means or the world in general. In the end, No Quatro da Vanda is a phenomenal film by Pedro Costa.
Pedro Costa Films: (O Sangue) – (Casa de lava) – Ossos - (Ou git votre sourire enfoui?) – Juventude em marcha – (Ne change rien) – (Cavalo dinheiro) – Vitalina Varela
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