31 Days of Cinema, Day Four: “In Vanda’s Room”

Great art is often a barometer of maturity, if not willpower. The best art is not usually the art that everyone agrees is superb, but rather the art that offends sensibilities and stirs argument, that changes our conceptions of what art can be and show. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is history’s most cliché example of his trend: the ballet’s dissonant music and unorthodox choreography caused a riot at its premiere, and today, the music is only rivaled by Beethoven’s Fifth. That premiere was the birth of the entire modernist movement—a painful birth, but an essential one if art was to develop. My life is a microcosm of this slice of history. When I first tried to listen to Spring, I turned it off after five minutes. Each of its fragments built up intensity only to cop out of climaxing and switch to another, unrelated fragment. I don’t know how, but overtime, I warmed up to it—and now, it’s one of my favorite musical compositions, not least because it taught me that art has no need to fulfill audience expectations. All art would have the same rough, boring structure otherwise. Going into In Vanda’s Room knowing it’s a three-hour Portuguese quasi-documentary, the opening five minutes will turn off most viewers. In one static shot, we see Vanda and her sister Zita on a bed in a green room—the title locale, we figure—high on heroin, smoking and talking without aim. When Vanda coughs and rasps, her pain is palpable. The instant temptation is to turn away (word from the wise: don’t plan on eating your lunch while watching this), yet doing that would deny the addicts’ humanity and the societal plagues of drugs and poverty. The film that follows is brutal; it’s also beyond criticism.

The middle entry in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy (between Ossos and Colossal Youth), In Vanda’s Room spends most if not all of its time among addicts and their families and friends in the slum in Lisbon that names the series. Many of its shots last several minutes; all of them are static, with nary a pan or movement to be registered. Such a style of filmmaking is reminiscent of the work of Chantal Akerman, and to a lesser extent of Béla Tarr (others will bring up Ozu). It is a pure, refined style that not many auteurs can perfect, one reliant on a more theatrical mode of acting and mise en scène. Executed as well as it is here, it is hypnotic and impels the audience towards a study of the still-life environment caught on camera that demands objectivity, whereas sweeps, zooms and tracking shots create multiple vantage points and encourage judgment. The quotidian receives much focus: a mother changes a kid’s diaper, Vanda sells produce for more money to score “smack,” a guy scrapes detritus off a table much to his partner’s dismay. Costa conducts few traditional interviews; his inquiries are seldom heard, and in most cases, the addicts think aloud freely to the camera. They shoot up for real during filming and offer an ethnography of addiction: hematomas bursting, the importance of needle exchanges, the envy of those who don’t have what they need to get high when others do, and the ever-constant social stigmatization. (Vanda has another sister, Nela, in prison, likely on a possession charge.) Once, an interviewee has his head off-camera, and the needle sticking out his arm—like a mistletoe off a ceiling—is squarely in the screen’s center, as if it is meant to consume his identity.

Or is it? The theme of addiction provides the context for many set pieces that Costa is a hero for capturing, such as when Vanda searches through a bag full of lighters for one with fluid in it and scrapes iotas of leftover cocaine from the pages of her phone book. (Zita also likes to stir those drugs into her strawberries.) Yet, there are infinite other details that stick out: used limes on a pillow; water bottles on tables actually echoing the great French still-lifes; stone staircases intimately narrow or left hazardous without railings, leading up to nowhere; dazed guys moving furniture; a friend and former addict visiting Vanda with flowers and sharing the difficulties of withdrawal that are still with him; changes in lighting and chiaroscuro that, in a nod to Akerman, give new dimensions to rooms we feel like we’ve been in before. Families meet and argue; updates and anecdotes are shared; groups loiter in and traverse the slums. Throughout, the condominiums of the well-to-do loom over the slums, as tractors and bulldozers—the basic instruments of gentrification—encroach on and chip away at the abandoned homes that Vanda and company now occupy, pushing them beyond Lisbon city limits, further out of sight and mind. To expand on a point I introduced in my last review: we often seek out cinema as escapism, thus when a film acts as a mirror of the real world, we tend to shirk from it when we should really be inspired to forsake the comforts of escapist fiction for once and strive to make the real world an ideal—an escape in and of itself. We may as well know nothing about Portugal, that sliver on the edge of Europe whose culture has been subsumed into its heftier once-colony, Brazil. We know less about Cape Verde, the African archipelago (also a once-colony) from which most of Fontainhas’ residents, including Vanda, come. They are truly marginalized, and we are the condos.

As Costa implies time and again, Fontainhas no longer exists as filmed. The very architectural concept of interiors—amalgams of wall, floor and ceiling, such as (indeed) Vanda’s all too familiar room—turns out to be tenuous, even illusory. Are they not no more than constructs of atmospheric spaces elevated off the ground, spaces that can no longer be occupied exactly as Vanda does once they are torn down and built over? Hence, Costa’s camera is seen to exist in a realm, and preserve a point-of-view, that is near extinction in his time—a decade and a half ago—and that has been lost from us forever. Vanda and the rest of Fontainhas seem to be floating in mid-air. On the cusp of death, life takes on its most mystifying allures. We wish we could see through the eyes of the near-dead and get a glimpse of what is to come, but without risking death to ourselves. The best solution we have to that paradox is film. In this respect, In Vanda’s Room emphasizes what Ai Weiwei underscores in his famous photographic triptych, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” Film can store what is vulnerable to and often subject to the ravages of history; it can create to substitute destruction. Even if it can only do so within a two-dimensional framework, that is enough because our eyes are trained to detect and feel three dimensions with just two. What is there in film still has a chance of surviving in its present, even if we the audience know its fate, and its presence has gravitas in spades. This is the primary magic of film. It can take us to places we can’t go, that we otherwise wouldn’t go to because of their degradation and lack of safety. It lets us into lives we might have otherwise ignored and rejected, and it lets those lives gain a voice amidst the deepest economic squalor and the incessant itch for instant pleasure. It exposes the strength of those lives in spite of the weakness, their power in spite of their powerlessness. And that is what makes all three hours of In Vanda’s Room essential viewing.

Grade: A+

(This film is available on Hulu.)

Tomorrow: we cross the Channel to London to meet The Krays.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Four: “In Vanda’s Room”