October 23, 2007
In Vanda's Room, 2000
The first image of Vanda's childhood friend, Nhurro is an insightfully intimate one. On the morning of the scheduled demolition of his home - an abandoned house in the slums of Fonthainas that he had taken over and settled into as his own - Nhurro takes a final, almost ceremonial, thorough scrub down bath in near total darkness in the midst of pounding sledgehammers and approaching heavy machinery, using buckets of ported hot water to rinse off the soap suds in the absence of running water and electricity. Emerging in the shadows from his bath with the steam evaporating from the surface of his skin, Nhurro's obscured silhouette momentarily appears phantasmagoric and evanescent against the stray rays of light poking through the crumbling walls and covered windows of the barren house, transforming him into an almost spectral, otherworldly figure that is subsequently reframed against a more mundane reality when he awkwardly stumbles from the wet floor while trying to retrieve his clothes from a nearby chair. This metaphysical image proves to be Pedro Costa's most direct illustration of the marginalized, discarded Fonthainas residents as displaced ghosts in In Vanda's Room - a theme that would again surface in Colossal Youth and especially Tarrafal) - a manifestation of figurative lost souls drifting from one derelict landscape to another in the wake of the shantytown's looming, phased demolition, systematic depopulation, and involuntary exile. In an encounter with Vanda that occurs near the end of the film, Nhurro, once again forcibly displaced by advancing bulldozers from his newly claimed "home" (a house that he continues to fastidiously clean until the very end of his brief "tenancy", perhaps as a symbolic gesture of his human dignity), secretly takes refuge in Vanda's room for a few days while searching for other intact, abandoned houses to move into, and resignedly tells her of his life in perpetual transience, "living in ghost houses other people left empty." In a sense, the sad, adrift characters wandering into and out of Vanda's room are also leading impermanent, yet paradoxically static and inescapable lives in the doomed ghost town.
In Vanda's Room also anticipates José Luis Guerín's En Construcción in its untold stories of disposable lives and buried cultures that continue to surface and reassert their inerasable identities from the rubble of area revitalization. Composed of long take, stationary shots, often of cramped interior spaces or narrow alleys framed against neglected building façades, doorways, and even gouged walls that reflect the characters' economic bondage and spiritual captivity, the film's oppressive moral landscape and interminable stasis are also revealed through repeating episodes of inarticulate, idle conversations, hardscrabble drug use, door to door peddling, acts of petty theft, and habitual rummaging (most notably, in Vanda finding an antique model ship that had been inadvertently left outside that alludes to the country's own historical change in fortune from colonial empire to increasingly marginalized country within the economic homogenization of a borderless European Union). But there is also a specter of inevitable change in these uncomfortably intimate moments of destructive (and often self-inflicted) limbo as the remaining residents, too impoverished to move away, await their fate. (In one ironic juxtaposition, the extended image of Vanda resting in an alley with a crate of unsold vegetables is framed against a doorway as the song The Power by Snap! plays in the background.) The news of Nhurro's newfound residence that is mentioned during Vanda and her sister, Zita's opening conversation is supplanted by his subsequent eviction from his latest home during the course of the film. In another conversation, the state-enabled, mass eviction of Fonthainas is reflected in the inequitable dispensation of institutional justice over the apparent theft of Knorr soup cubes, where punishment is exacted against the arbitrary measure of human disposability. Perhaps the most emblematic of its systematic cultural extinction lies in the fate of a middle-aged woman named Geny who, early in the film, anxiously stands near the door of her home, having been evicted on the same morning as Nhurro. Raising a faint smile when a neighbor tries to cheer her up with a tongue in cheek offer of cohabitation, the fleeing moment of lightness becomes even more poignant within the context of a passing visitor's subsequent indirect account of her misfortune. This sobering convergence in Vanda's room - the evocation of Geny's faint smile, told by an emphysemic friend who trades a bouquet of flowers for a supply of respiratory medicine, in the room where Vanda and Zita get their heroin fix - powerfully encapsulates the film's haunted, indelible, and unflinching intimacy: an image of tragic souls hovering aimlessly over their physical captivity, pursuing distractive quests for transitory relief.