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TSPDT 2013: In Vanda’s Room

Posted by martinteller on February 20, 2013

In the slum neighborhood of Fontainhas, on the outskirts of Lisbon, we watch Vanda (Vanda Duarte) and her family and associates.  Almost all of them — if not all of them — are heroin addicts.  Vanda and her sister Zita freebase, while the men seem to prefer shooting up.  They do drugs, they talk about drugs, they try to sell things (mostly to each other) to pay for their habits.  Their bodies are running down, giving out.

I have to stop, I hate that summary.  It makes the film sound like another moralistic drug movie.  It isn’t.  It’s the least clichéd “drug movie” I’ve seen.  While it is undoubtedly about drugs — these people’s lives would surely be profoundly different without them — it is not about drugs.  It’s not pushing any agenda down your throat, or wallowing in the gritty awfulness of it, or gawking at the poor junkies.  It’s also a movie about people on the fringes of society, as buildings are constantly being demolished around them.  And yet it’s not about that, either.  The film is so… un-pushy.  It simply observes, without a hint of judgment, without commentary on any level.

The genre listing on IMDb is “Documentary | Drama”.  It’s impossible for me to say how much of each it is.  At times it feels like one or the other, at times it feels like both.  It isn’t quite life and isn’t quite fiction.  How vague is this goddamn review?  But that’s how slippery the film is… I can’t exactly describe what it is, or why it has such a powerful pull.  There is no effort at constructing a narrative, but the film is still constructed, with scenes — whether improvised, scripted, or simply documented — being put in a certain order, sometimes cutting between two locations.  There is a rhythm to it, but no sense of progression.  In this way, it mirrors the life of an addict, busy but inert.  They maintain some pride and dignity, some tidying their residences even when they know they’ll have to move on.

There is no doubt that most would find it maddeningly slow and uneventful.  It took me a while to get into it myself… partly resistant because I wasn’t very taken with Ossos, Costa’s previous film.  But the more I watched — and the more I reflect on it now — the more fascinated I am with this wholly unconventional movie.  The use of digital video is superb, often working in exceptionally low light conditions but always bringing a certain beauty (but not in a “poverty porn” way) to these shambling, cramped locations.  There is drama and comedy, but always muted.  The tone is both real and not quite real… and here I am being vague again.  I really liked this movie, it did something to me.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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