Sounds of choking over complete darkness is what first introduces us to the central figures of In Vanda’s Room. These sounds and images stay with us throughout the whole film, not only as a depiction of the characters day-to-day lifestyle, but also lingers as a dense claustrophobic representation of the static state of mind of the people inhabiting the Lisbon ghetto.
Every scene is composed by a static fixed camera, a fixed camera that literally traps its victims in the frame. A frame that is usually composed of omnipresent smoke and blackness, with minimal light seeping in from cracks, reflections, a cigarette, a lighter, or the dull luminance from a TV. Fire in an alleyway. The characters are literally seen chasing this light that is so scarce in the frame – desperately trying to get the lighter working for their fix, staring at the sunlight through the door, “night’s coming, i better go buy some candles” even though his figure is already immersed in darkness while the disintegrating table is shown in light.
The light acts as a symbol of hope and continually fades in and out, expanding and diminishing its luminance in each vignette, sometimes producing a dim green dirtied halo around its characters heads. The light acts as a broken spiritual symbol of hope as well as “the light at the end of the tunnel” towards death: “Where will we end up? god only knows, in the cemetery”. and as the characters explain, a cemetery where only plastic flowers are allowed.
(In addition to natural light, flowers and natural greenery are also scarce. When fixing up the room, a comment about wishing they had flowered wallpaper. In another room, a landscape mural on a wall, with only light source from the TV. And if natural greenery – leaves, etc is actually shown, the figures are in dark clothing if not silhouetted) They are separate from what’s around them.
Following in this theme of an absence of nature and a deadening spirit is the birds that are shown throughout the film. Birds are only shown as clutched in hands, or in cages waiting to be sold in exchange for money. Scenes with the characters whistling like a bird but the only living things flying around them are bugs. An image of the freeing of the funeral doves comes to mind in contrast. These people, who are sometimes described as having “evil” within them want to be free but are trapped because of financial means and habit.
Equally and oppositely emphasized to the idea of the spirit is the bodily aspect of their lives. Talk of being too hot, too cold, talk of pus and veins, scars, cunts. Coughing, sneezing, vomit and sweat are beautifully captured by the digital video medium that shot this film. Talking of having trouble breathing, being in pain having to use crutches to walk up six flights of stairs, but the characters endure which make them human and sympathetic.
Both this moral and physical ruin is seen almost solely through the forced demolishing of the house and neighborhood by the district that surrounds them. They are constantly trying to make their lives work, by cleaning, scrubbing, sewing together the yarn of their world with little result. This obsessive cleaning acts as a metaphor of cleaning away sin. They seek guidance, “help me clean this up, give me a hand with this” and get no reply.
My favorite scene is the one where they bring home an antique boat and are trying to convince the other people of the house of the boat’s worth by saying, “it’s all in one piece except some wires are broken”. And repeating, “Didn’t you see it, ma? Outside the streetcars? I thought you’d seen it, it was out there”. Like the broken boat, they are unnoticed, ostracized and alone.
The characters are shown as disconnected from themselves as well as disconnected from the viewer. Telling each other they want to be left alone, demanding each other to do things themselves. They almost never look directly at each other when speaking. In one scene it appears they are in fact looking at each other, but only barely and through reflections in mirrors. Sounds are indirect and muffled, muted music is only heard through the thin walls while showing a quiet and solitary person, or object, in frame.
The characters are plagued with the notion of time, always “Hurry!” and “Let me finish this”. Time is running out for them and the light will go out forever. The invisible feeling of the documentary-type camera and slow undulating pace cuts the characters off from the viewers which I believe Costa intended to do to show how no one is doing anything to help these people, which leaves them in a stasis – A three hour long stasis, where no one is willing to help, forcing them to fend for themselves as music in the background plays “I’ve Got the Power”.
Wonderful review of a wonderful film.
I’ve known addicts, I still do; and I’ve known heroin addicts. They constantly want to be alone; they constantly just want to live in the depths of their habit, but they are almost constantly surrounded by at least one other person (usually another addict, or someone they think they’re fooling). The very structure of the film is contradictory; as is the life of the addict. It’s a documentary but it’s a documentary that’s constructed; built up by Pedro Costa himself. Images of slow-moving, simple reality… but a sound design that was totally created in the studio (indeed almost all dialogue was re-recorded while editing the film, and the actual sounds of the destruction of the Fontainhas district are actually sound of construction in Egypt recorded by sound engineer Markus Pauli).
The scene where Nhurrio tells us he saw his woman today; that she was amazed at how much weight he’s lost; how she hopes the best for him and leaves food out in the hopes that he’ll come and get it… just that story alone fully illuminates the destruction addiction has. This is what these people have; family and love. The government won’t help them; the rich won’t help them; no one outside the Fontainhas feels any need to help them. Their family is the only thing that they have in this world, and they throw it away for heroin. That is the central human drama unfolding in front of us.
Wow, that’s interesting, I didn’t know that about the sound. The sound was definitely very important throughout the film. And I liked that throughout, you see this violin that’s being tuned although you never really hear any real music from it. Until the very end when everything is pitch dark.
Mr. Costa talks quite a bit about the sound design on the commentary track on the Criterion release (which is probably the best release in their entire catalogue). It’s almost a film that separates sound and image completely. It’s again part of that contradictory nature of the film. It’s realism, but a realism constructed while Costa was editing (he wasn’t even sure when he started the film that he would ever have anything to be made into a film). It’s natural sound, but natural sound recorded in a studio. Some may point to this as a falsity in the film (an obfuscation of reality instead of a exploration of it), but in truth an examining of addiction at this level cannot be made in any other manner. An addict constructs their entire lives around lies and contradictions and falsities; the film should be constructed in the exact same manner.
This is precisely why the film creates this sense of being in a room with Vanda and Zita in the first shot; we’re not watching them on a screen, we’re sitting there with them. It’s so perfectly matches their mindset in the very manner in which the film is constructed that the fourth wall, as it were, is totally dissolved.
Is that you Mr. JD? :)
If anyone would like to look further into the life of Jean Rosch, be aware, I’ve found his name spelled Rosch, Roesch, Roche and Rouch.
Have not seen the first part of what I guess is a trilogy. I fully intend to now.
The film reminded me of Larry Clarks photographs (the non sexual ones), of Bartas (tho it had an incredible documentary feel that is hard to believe can be faked. It is about poor community, about being dope sick and wilted vegetables. I know people like this and I was still interested. The performances are amazing. The shanty locations and fixed shot formats are perfect.
And yes I noticed the body aspect as well (wonderful intro)
This is a film that does everything right. Thanks for the intro to it.
The films are technically a trilogy, in that all three films take place in The Fontainhas District of Lisbon, but the first part, Ossos is very, very different from In Vanda’s Room… in fact I cannot think of any other director that has made a larger change in style from one film to the next. I think it is sort of necessary to see In Vanda’s Room before Colossal Youth, in that the latter has so many characters from the former, but all three of the films absolutely stand on their own.
@Nohea – hey thanks, i’m definitely going to check out more Ethnofiction!!!
@Dennis B – ya i know what you mean, the performances really were amazing. because usually when i’ve seen other films about junkies i really couldn’t care less what happened to them. which wasn’t the case for this film.