IT says something (not good) about the state of foreign film distribution in the United States that the Portuguese director Pedro Costa has become one of the most exalted figures in world cinema without having a single one of his creations open in a commercial theater here. Instead his work has been disseminated through not-for-profit institutions like Anthology Film Archives (which presented a Costa retrospective in 2007) and the New York Film Festival (which showed his newest film, “Ne Change Rien,” a documentary about the French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar, in the fall).
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Criterion Collection is releasing “Letters From Fontainhas,” a generously appointed boxed set that contains Mr. Costa’s trilogy filmed in the Fontainhas district of Lisbon — “Ossos” (1997), “In Vanda’s Room” (2000) and “Colossal Youth” (2006) — as well as two of his short films, a feature-length documentary on his work and a huge repository of written and audio-visual commentary from an international assembly of artists and scholars.
A company whose core business is the distribution of imported classics by the likes of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, Criterion is now taking the necessary next step of bringing difficult contemporary artists directly to its clientele, bypassing a contemporary art house scene that has become depressingly conservative. The route may be risky, but ultimately it makes good business sense: Pedro Costa can’t compete with “Slumdog Millionaire” at the multiplex, but 30 years from now people will still be watching his work.
Like several of today’s most interesting filmmakers — China’s Jia Zhang-ke (“Still Life”), Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso (“Los Muertos”), Sweden’s Roy Andersson (“You, the Living”) — Mr. Costa works in a concentrated, long-take style. It’s a method that seems to have arisen as a counterbalance to that hyperkinetic editing that dominates Hollywood, in which a series of short, tight shots is used to focus the audience’s attention on plot details (and to provide an ostensibly pleasurable retinal buzz).
Rather than breaking a scene down into analytical fragments, Mr. Costa keeps his camera at a certain distance, placing his performers within careful, classically balanced compositions that emphasize the characters’ relationships to one another and the specific world that contains them. Shots are held for minutes at a time, as Mr. Costa observes the human spectacle unfolding before him.
Fontainhas is, or was, a Lisbon neighborhood that looks more like a medieval village than a modern urban center, a honeycomb of tiny, cell-like dwellings linked by narrow passageways. Abandoned by tourists and most city services, it is home to a mixed population of immigrants from the islands of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the west coast of Africa, and indigenous outcasts and drug addicts. A richly cinematic space, full of mystery and visual interest, Fontainhas comes to resemble a series of interconnecting stages, each containing a drama of its own.
Those dramas are a mix of the fictional and the real, often drawn from the lives of the nonprofessional actors who play them out. Though no traditional narrative with a beginning, middle and end emerges from the interactions Mr. Costa observes, each film has a distinct emotional center. In “Ossos” a troubled teenage girl repeatedly tries to kill herself and her newborn baby; in “In Vanda’s Room” a young woman provides a place of refuge and support to her friends and family, despite her addiction to smoking heroin; in “Colossal Youth” a middle-aged Cape Verdean, thrown out of his house by his wife, looks for a new place to settle.
Fontainhas changes over the course of the three films, as does Mr. Costa’s way of looking at it. In the first film, shot in 35 millimeter by Emmanuel Machuel (who photographed Robert Bresson’s 1983 film “L’Argent”), the neighborhood seems largely intact and is woven into the larger fabric of the city; the visual emphasis is on bright, vivid colors and harmonious widescreen compositions.
By the time of “Vanda’s Room,” three years later, the jackhammers and backhoes of urban renewal can be heard gnawing away off screen, and the visual design turns to dark interiors illuminated by dramatic shafts of light, shot by Mr. Costa himself, operating a digital video camera. “Colossal Youth” finds the area almost depopulated, most of its residents having moved to antiseptic housing developments, the few remaining holdouts living as squatters. The images now are almost drained of color, and Mr. Costa frames his protagonist (both the actor and the character are simply called “Ventura”) against harshly geometrical backgrounds that might have come out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”
A recurring figure in all three films is Vanda (Vanda Duarte), who first appears in “Ossos” as the suicidal girl’s responsible, hardworking best friend. In “Vanda’s Room” she has become a full-time addict, her body repeatedly convulsed by a harrowing cough. In “Colossal Youth” she is on methadone and almost unrecognizable, a suddenly middle-aged women with a child and husband, living in a featureless new apartment where she stares into a television set as she once might have looked into a neighbor’s window.
This physical evidence of time’s passing gives Mr. Costa’s work a powerful sense of reality. Yet at heart his is a cinema of stylization and studied enigma, often created through the deliberate suppression of detail. Why are drugs as conspicuously absent from “Ossos” as they are omnipresent in “Vanda’s Room”? Can all the characters in “Colossal Youth” who call Ventura “father” actually be his children? These and many other questions remain unanswered, part of Mr. Costa’s technique of leaving some rooms in his house of fiction locked and inaccessible. This is challenging work that demands and rewards repeated viewings — the art-house classics of tomorrow, today.