1. Humanistic warmth combined with modernist severity. It's those two hallmarks of twentieth-century art cinema Colossal Youth attempts to interweave. His film takes as its subject the poor of a small district in Lisbon. At its center is an older man (he appears to be in his sixties), played by, and named, Ventura, whom Costa met while shooting an earlier film. In the film, Ventura does nothing more than visit men and women who might be his children, and looks for a home in which they might all live together. His wife has left him and his life's work (manual labor, it is implied) doesn't seem to have come close at all with providing him the material comforts necessary for old age. The close identification of fictional characters with real social types recalls immediately the legacy of Neorealist cinema, and as Costa's sure camera carves out stark and telling images of the Lisbon community in which Ventura lives, one can feel him groping towards a large and very significant statement on the social ills and plight of the poor in a large community that far exceeds the personal problems of his central character. Yet the very real and humanistic gaze Costa casts on Ventura is no mistake: Costa lets Ventura linger on-screen longer than any other figure in the film. I've never seen a narrative film about the Lisbon poor, so it's enough, I suppose, to regard Ventura as a human being inherently worth the gaze of the camera simply by making the choice to point it at him without any economic or story-driven motivation. In counterpoint, however - and this is what makes the film difficult, and, to many audiences, unappealing - is a paratactic editing strategy that is straight out of the most difficult films of Godard, Ackerman, and Straub-Huillet. We see Ventura in one place, then we see him in another, without the usual scaffolds of continuity editing and temporal markers to tell us how he got there and why, exactly, he went.
3. An architectural cinema. Cinema scholars have long relied upon the other arts to explain what is interesting about their own, whether it's literary studies to come up with auteurism, painting and hieroglyphics as equivalents to the arts of mise-en-scene and montage, or music to describe the temporal modulations of narrative editing. (There's a word in art history, deriving from academic debates in the Italian Renaissance, for this kind of comparative analysis: paragone). Architecture seems, to me, to be one of the relatively untapped metaphors in studying cinema (although it's certainly been used from time to time). In most every shot in Colossal Youth, Ventura, or another character, is framed by architecture: the awning of his daughter's shack, covered in shade; the falling-apart doors of his own small abode, a material sign of his impoverishment; or the museum and the expensive apartment homes that Ventura, it is implied, helped build with the labor of his hands, but is not invited to become a part of. The mystery Costa finds in these kinds of spaces, however, suggests Ventura is not merely subjected to these structures; they hold a potential that might still be tapped. This is no fantasy of agency: Ventura ends the film, it would seem, with even less than he had when he began it. (Perhaps Costa is too, given the ethical perils that film-makers casting real-life subjects in fictional films always face?) But Costa defamiliarizes these evocative images of a poor, dilapidated world in ways that suggest they might still become something new.
4. The poem. At several junctures in Colossal Youth, Ventura repeats a poem. At first, he intones it at the request of his son, who would appear to be looking for words to send to his own wife in a letter. In fact, this is the major patterning motif in the film: more than any other diegetic space or composition, its repetition provides us with a thoroughfare in a very tricky and difficult work. Here it is (as it first appears; each reiteration comes with its own variations):
My love, Being together again will brighten our lives for another 30 years.
I'll come back to you strong and loving.
I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes,
a dozen fancy dresses,
that little lava house you always dreamed of,
a threepenny bouquet.
But most of all,
drink a bottle of good wine and think of me.
Here, it's nothing but work.
There's over a hundred of us now...
"A beautiful letter," his son says, after he hears it for the first time in the film. But it's not only its suggestion of romance, or its recall of some of the film's own motifs (the search for the home and the solace taken in alcohol, to name just two). Its foreboding beauty also comes as a reminder of how far work keeps figures like Ventura from achieving the dreams inscribed in the poem - economic, romantic, and otherwise - rather than bringing them closer to them. "That's an awful letter," his son comes to think, the final time he hears it near film's end.
The mystery is never solved and no better and more just world is found by Ventura; thus, Costa's socially committed and aesthetically rigorous cinema must continue.