When asked, if I recall correctly, by an interlocutor from the late, great, Musician magazine, what he hoped to achieve via his bass playing, the magnificent (and still active) musician Charlie Haden responded, "I want to make every note beautiful." And every note Haden plays, sweet or sour, is always beautiful, well-rounded, kind of a staggering individual work in and of itself.
Watching Portuguese director Pedro Costa's first feature, 1989's O Sangue, one imagines that a kind of similar mission moved the filmmaker, who had put himself through a lengthy apprenticeship assisting other filmmakers who did not quite share such an idea.
Every single shot in O Sangue is beautiful, incredibly sharp and well-defined, suffused with ache and sensuality. The multi-leveled cinematic references—to Murnau's Sunrise, to the films of Val Lewton, which Costa will reference even more explicitly in his next feature Casa de Lava, to Antonioni and to Bertolucci and to Bellochio; they're all here, maybe encyclopedically so, and yet they never feel self-conscious, or decadent.
It is a breathtaking film to watch. An incredibly vibrant first feature that has its own vital blood pulsing through its celluloid veins. Two young brothers and a sympathetic teen girl try to figure out their way in the world after the death of their abusive and generally up-to-no-good father. The ties of the blood are strong but they can't solve everything. The portrait the picture paints of a criminal underworld that's just as out of sorts and desultory as the brothers themselves is droll, understated, signaling a filmmaker of admirable maturity and humor.
And yet. Watching this from the vantage points of the monumental, and monumentally challenging, films Costa has made in recent years—the trying, corroding, ultimately affirming In Vanda's Room and the equally patience-trying but richly rewarding Colossal Youth among them—one can understand how Costa came to see this particular mode of filmmaking as a dead end. The control he applied to every shot, the manipulation of the music (he has said "[I was] completely enchanted with American movies and their music so I committed some crimes, like using Stravinsky") the deliberate murkiness of the film's storyline, as if he was in the running to create an enigma rather than illuminate one—all of these features, so pronounced here, are ones that the filmmaker would slough off.
But not all at once. As Costa has oft-stated, his next feature, Casa de Lava, was originally intended as a kind of remake of Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie. And in his feature after that, Ossos (Bones), the first film he shot in the desolate Fontainhas district of Lisbon, he makes the mistake of having one of his characters play a song by Costas' beloved punk minimalists Wire on the stereo, the sort of imposition he would completely renounce for In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth (although the latter's English-language title is, admittedly, cribbed from Young Marble Giants, another minimalist combo of the post-punk era).
So what to do with O Sangue? Hardcore Costaphiles seem to find it a bit problematic, as does Costa himself. (This terrific essay posted a year back at The Evening Class is an excellent summation of various critical positions on the film, including our own Daniel Kasman's perspective, which was published before the birth of The Auteurs.) As a relatively late convert to Costa, I find the picture endlessly fascinating and intriguing. To put it in the vocabulary of a punk rocker, it's as if he started with Rocket to Russia and worked backwards to The Ramones. If you don't speak punk rock, here's what Robert Christgau said about Russia: "Having revealed how much you can take out and still have rock and roll, they now explore how much you can put back in and still have Ramones." O Sangue can be seen as Costa/cinema with stuff put back in: moving camera, a particular use of music, and so on.
And it is always beautiful, and the new Second Run DVD is a gorgeous reproduction with smart, moving extras, including essays by Adrian Martin and Frédéric Bernard, and a short film in which the late director of the director of the Portuguese Cinemateque, Joao Bénard da Costa, reads from an appreciation of the film.