In Vanda’s Room
Close to the end of In Vanda’s Room (2000), there is one of the shots I like the most, the one with an old Cape Verdean woman and a girl, also from Cape Verde.
The woman is sitting in a room and the camera “is sitting” behind her, only allowing us to see what is in her field of vision. A child then appears who, after going in and out, stops at the threshold of the door, near a bicycle. The child then turns towards us (towards the camera and towards the old woman) and, rocking from one side to the other, swings the bicycle, making it honk. Discovering the sound effect of the movement, the child repeats it a number of times, her back always turned to the street, her eyes always turned to the old woman. The woman does not show the slightest reaction to the girl’s game but, although we cannot see her gaze, we know she is giving her full attention. This attention, in a way, is met, for the child’s game, although also solitary, is a game for the woman, or a game with the woman. Neither of them ever say a word, the woman always motionless, the girl always repeating the same movement. In that film of very long shots, this shot is one of the longest. In that film of rituals, this shot is one of the most ritualistic. In that film of mysteries, this shot is one of the most mysterious.
Never until then – at least as far as I know, only having watched the film twice – were those characters shown to us. Never will we see them again. They may be grandmother and grandchild, they may be, as all are, neighbours in that ravaged neighbourhood of Fontainhas. The old woman – I’ve said it – shows no reaction. The child is clearly amused with her game but, at some point, a very strange awkwardness begins to take over and death becomes increasingly present in what we see, which never changes.
Abruptly (nearly all the cuts in this film are abrupt), Pedro Costa cuts and, on a tray surrounded by coins and a piece of paper from the undertaker of Venda Nova with some sayings on it, we see something that looks like a receipt. This shot, on the contrary, is incredibly short, so much so that we have no time to read what is on the piece of paper. Nevertheless, without any hint guiding me in that direction, I caught myself “making up” a story, which is not in the film. Someone died in that house, perhaps the woman’s husband, perhaps the child’s grandfather. Behind the old woman, there may well be a corpse or a coffin, which the child sees but we do not. The old woman’s concentration comes from suddenly finding herself alone, with that child, and becoming, from that moment on, her sole protector and guardian (a bit like Vanda and Zita’s grandmother, by whose soul Zita swears and who they both so often remember). The child’s game is her way of responding to death, her way of calling her grandmother to life. The sound of the bicycle is a knell and a reveille, a way of exorcising ghosts in a house inhabited by them. Shortly after (I believe it is the third shot following that one) Pango will say (following one of the most breathtaking close-ups of Vanda): “to live in ghost houses that other people have left. I’ve been in houses where not even a witch would want to live in. But I’ve also been in houses that were worthwhile. They were houses that people abandoned but, if a good soul happened to be there, they would even not knock it down. That’s what it was like . . . house after house”. Following a long silence where, in the darkness of the image, outlines become easier to discern, “Nhurro” (as Vanda also calls him), who we saw, much earlier, shed the only tear in the film, adds: “I’ve paid a higher price for the things I haven’t done than for the things I have done”. The shot with the cat follows, the most immeasurably surreal one in a film that also inhabits that dimension, or mainly inhabits that dimension, considering that nothing is what it seems and nothing that appears is only what it is.
I then remembered (going back to the shot with the bicycle) Casa de Lava (1994), Pedro Costa’s second feature film, almost entirely taking place, if you well remember, in Cape Verde and among Cape Verdeans. This film is also the exterior of the interior that Casa de Lava is, or the interior of the exterior that Casa de Lava is. Personally, as someone familiar with Cape Verdean culture, the rhythmic rocking of the girl may be, in a more obvious way, what I obscurely glimpsed in it. Or not. Views change, depending on whether we are inside or out, and In Vanda’s Room (except actually in her room, the girls’ room and some obvious exteriors), we never know for sure whether we’re inside or out. They may be houses, ruins of houses, paths between houses, open air or shelter. Inside or out, we are almost never sure, almost never sure. Space and time have lost their borders in this neighbourhood and for its people. It wasn’t like that before, Vanda and Zita tell us. No one knew Geny sold drugs or where she sold them. But now I remember Geny also came to mind when I saw the old Cape Verdean woman, Geny, such a striking mask, who we only see in the beginning of the film and may well be – or not be – the one who died in the ambulance when her son refused to give her money for drugs, Geny who one day was and the next was no longer, like nearly everything or nearly everyone there.
I also remembered – I am still in the shot with the bicycle – a remarkable text that Pedro Costa wrote, many years ago, for a catalogue of Gulbenkian-Cinemateca, on the last shot of the sequence in which, in Land of the Pharaohs, Queen Nailla dies to save her son, Prince Zanin, from being killed by a snake. Costa wrote: “It is not really possible to tell everything that happens in this shot. It is not the whole image of Land of the Pharaohs, but all the film is contained in it. The pressure of Time and Death expressed in the shot and in the film explodes in our faces (…) There is no way out; we can’t help but see. There must be a limit beyond which the static, frontal, ascetic image becomes unbearable, where that invisible line, that open wound, becomes impossible to ignore”.1 Mutatis mutandis, those words foreshadow the shot with the little girl and the bicycle in In Vanda’s Room. That shot is likewise unbearable, in a film that is also “a dark film, asphyxiating and lost from the moment it starts. We can only go in also lost”.2
It is not only that shot, which for unknown reasons got me so hooked, that is unbearable. The whole film is so, from the moment the shadows of Vanda and Zita shape the screen in the very first shot of the film, when we hear the first coughs and see the first flies, and the first climax – “what an ugly name” – is reached. Besides, there’s the woman who killed her son for no more no less than 1,500 escudos.
When I say unbearable, I do not say it to console the distressed, those sensitive souls who are unable to kill a chicken but can eat it, which Sophia [de Mello Breyner Andresen] refers to in a poem.3 I say it to talk about a film situated beyond the limit of what can be seen, but that becomes impossible to ignore. And “there is only one thing left for an image to do: to be constructive or destructive”.4 When the image is hurled as it is in this film, to speak about creation or destruction stops being a dilemma or contradiction.
Why do – for example – shots return so often long after they have started? I’m thinking about the shot of the first transaction (or should I call it transfusion?) between the Black guy and the Russian, which starts, almost at the very beginning of the film, around excuses for home help (no one speaks to anyone, no one listens to anyone, both know what they came for and where they are heading, “Our Lord please help us”) and ends, well into the middle, when the Russian has already “scored” – what a beautiful name. And the Russian leaves, no longer knowing where he comes from, disoriented in that disorientation.
Why do we, for example, go in and out of Vanda’s room so often (we spend a lot of time there, but not the whole time), that room where she is on her own, or with her sister, or with the helpless flower boy, or with Pango? Is there a limit? There is, even if we don’t know it, and I never felt that reaching it was what made Pedro Costa leave to explore other times and spaces of the neighbourhood. To Pango, Vanda will say he should have knocked on the door because she could be “discomposed”. Did we or do we ever see her “composed”, whatever meaning that word may have?
I’ve said it in another text.5 I didn’t fall in love with Vanda. Having watched the film twice, my love goes more to Zita, a woman at times almost reminiscent of Botticelli, always dressed in black, or to Muletas, so very disappointed with that story of D. Rosa from the seventh floor, who gave him two yogurts instead of the money he wanted. “Fuck that. Two yogurts. Fuck her. I came all the way down and was only praying to God for them to be strawberry yogurts.” We had already before heard horrible stories like the one of the girl, “the good-looking one who killed her daughter”, or the one with the Knorr stock cubes, or the one with Our Lady of Fátima. However, no one more beautiful (“beautiful” and “horrible” are not opposites here) than the one with the yogurts, which then flows into the golden blackbird. There is also the story of Pango, the sweetest of them all, who after all did knock on the door, “with the little my father taught me”. And the one who was “stubborn but pretty clean?” that Russian, always down and out, lost over there, as if taken out of a film by Nicholas Ray? It will take me a bit longer to love Vanda, but how can I say “no” to someone who says “yes” to everyone, to someone with the most beautiful shots in the film and, always or nearly always, with the list of yellow pages on her lap, as dazzling as the light from “chasing the dragon” in the dark or the silver lying about in every drawer, so luminously punctuating the film?
Here I force myself to repeat myself. It’s in that list – the only book in the film – that Vanda keeps her drugs. It’s a sordid list, an obscene presence, in its immense ugliness, but at the same time it is (and don’t ask me why) the book of hours, the sacred text, the Old and New Testament of a revelation to be. It is in it that extremes meet or become tangible – if, like the limits, they exist.
Why is Vanda, who hardly ever leaves her room (but leaves to that shot with the bushes, which more strongly echoes the earlier O Sangue [Blood] ), who hardly ever leaves her bed, not an extreme character?
Give your full attention to her dialogue with Pango. For sweet Pango, that life “is the life we are forced to have. It seems like a destiny, a line [set in stone]”. But Vanda asks him – “You reckon?” – and repeats what she had said in the first place: “It’s the life we want, I think”. In the following shot, the Chinese is in the hands of the Russian. Vanda has already left because, after listening to Pango’s confession, who left home to not hurt his mother anymore, “she was not able to hear anything else”. In that moment, and only then, she was the one who set the limit, the extreme. And, if eco-friendly cemeteries only allow artificial flowers (and the shot of the Carnide cemetery is the only one not filmed in Fontainhas), the tomb that Vanda’s room also is receives the flowers that cemeteries won’t accept, the flowers taken to the living and taken from the dead. Those flowers merge with the yellow pages (or with the other list, the blue one, that is never opened) in the same sensual, “ghostly” liturgy.
I got lost in time, just as the film also loses itself, in the dizzying rhythm of the editing. However, I would like to not get lost in space, I promised I would speak of the interiors and exteriors, of inside and out.
Notice those shots where cabbages are being sold. Who is inside, who is outside? “Ma’am, would you like lettuce or cabbage?” Are we inside the house or outside the house, as in so many other situations? We are never quite sure. Because all houses fall down and are already remnants of them or no longer them, because the streets of the neighbourhood are also homes, because people no longer take shelter and in no matter what corner inject themselves or look for a vein in their neck, when no other is accessible anymore, in that shot as sacred as an ecce homo. Some houses are covered with wooden and clay walls in multiple colours, others are eaten up by a yellow bulldozer looking like a prehistorical creature that, once it finishes its job, stays there “with glazed eyes” looking at what it has already consumed. Some houses get all closed up for the drug ritual, although the lights from outside are seen flickering inside. And those who take shelter leave the shelter exactly as they went in, while the very idea of “inside” stops making sense, except for, always, always, in Vanda’s room, an island enclosed by the outside on all sides, full of holes opened by “bombs”.
About the exterior, we are only sure in the final shot, in which the remnant of a house looks like the lost capital of a Greek column, or in a shot – out of all of them, the most “indescribable” – where, with the image all darkened, a figure ascends to the top of a little hill, as if a shot of Murnau would come to annotate (can I say this?) the preceding “softened” close-up of Vanda and the shot that follows, where we start to see her ear and where her face has both the precision of a Christ by Mantegna and the haziness of a Christ by Holbein.
But is it inside or outside that no. 181 exists, of the space near which silver spoons are bought for 150 escudos? But was it inside or outside that Vanda and Zita had a “cool childhood”? But is it inside or outside that the shot with the little yellow flowers and the old blue newspaper is captured? But is it inside or outside that spaces are delimited by yellow crosses, like the houses of people with the plague, in other middle ages, or the houses of Jews, in other new ages? What is the space of the otters on the television screen or of the mother, in the other corner of the shot?
I return to Pedro Costa’s old text: “Time and Space become saturated, full of emptiness, forced to face each other and do battle”.6 And the salvation or perdition of the visual image are added to an even more unbearable dimension in the sound image and in the more cavernous sound of the final bulldozer. Until the screen goes all black and we hear, as if from the beyond, the music of György Kurtág.
From Vanda’s room, there is no way out. As I said: the twenty-first century opened with In Vanda’s Room. “There is no way out: we can’t help but see”. “It becomes impossible to ignore”.
- 1Pedro Costa, “Land of the Pharaohs,” in Howard Hawks, ed. João Bénard da Costa, 303 (Lisbon: Cinemateca Portuguesa; Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1989). This text was republished in 2015 as “The Mystery of the Great Pyramid” in Film Comment. Translated into English by Ricardo Matos Cabo and Andy Rector.
- 2Costa, “Land of the Pharaohs,” 304, translation modified.
- 3Reference to the poem “As Pessoas Sensíveis” by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen.
- 4Costa, “Land of the Pharaohs,” 304, translation modified.
- 5João Bénard da Costa, “No Quarto da Vanda,” Independente, 2 March 2001.
- 6Cited in Costa, “Land of the Pharaohs,” 303.
Images from No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)
The first version of this text was written for distribution to accompany the screening of In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000) in the “No quarto da Vanda” Cycle in April 2001. The text was revised, adapted and distributed at a later Cinemateca session accompanying the “Juventude em Marcha” Cycle (January 2003). It hasn’t undergone any significant changes in its various variants. João Bénard da Costa wrote another texto about this film, published in Cem Mil Cigarros: Os Filmes de Pedro Costa (coordination: Ricardo Matos Cabo). Lisbon, Orfeu Negro; Midas Filmes, 2009, 15-17.
Milestones: No quarto da Vanda takes place on Thursday 23 November 2023 at 20:30 in KASKcinema, Ghent. You can find more information on the event here.