Spending three hours with Vanda Duarte, and those who surround her in the dilapidated, drug-infested Lisbon neighborhood known as Fontainhas, should not be this appealing. It is a crumbling, impoverished shantytown under incessant demolition, which sends many of its denizens scurrying from one ramshackle abode to another, existing in a continual state of impermanence, their livelihood further threatened by rampant addition. But under Pedro Costa’s exacting and inspired direction, In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) becomes an engrossing experience, a hypnotic glimpse into an insulated, hellish world on the far-flung margins of everyday society and the recesses of most social attention.
As the heroin-loving heroine of Costa’s fourth film — his second in the so-called “Fontainhas Trilogy” (bookended by Ossos  and Colossal Youth ) — Vanda is thrust at the viewer with an initially repellant intensity. She is plagued by a persistent cough, courtesy of her feverish freebasing, and her greasy hands and blemished face affirm a generally sullied lifestyle. Yet an enigmatic attraction remains, which it must, of course, in order to retain viewer interest for 180 minutes. For all of her eccentricities and imperfections, Vanda is strangely magnetic.
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The oscillation of Vanda’s behavior and demeanor varies greatly. She listlessly drifts into a dead-eyed, drug-induced daze — Costa’s camera recording the subtle gradations of her progressive incapacity — but she comes alive when hawking produce up and down the dingy thoroughfares of her sordid community. Vanda plummets into full-bodied hacking one second, spitting up in her bed and casually covering the bile with a blanket, then proceeds to charmingly string together a sing-songy ditty: “I feel cold. Cold, cold, cold,” whistling all the while. As Costa quite rightly states, Vanda, who played fictional characters in the other two films of the trilogy, is “a force you have to stomach.” She will wipe her running nose on a bedsheet and rage in excruciating pain and discomfort, then suddenly, she is the considerate shoulder to cry on when a sicky friend comes calling. When spurred to activity, Vanda appears to be in the process of doing something that will never be completed. One witnesses, for example, with a nearly perverse fascination, the routine preparation of her fix, or her mounting frustration at finding a lighter that works — picking one up, shaking, listening, sighing, discarding.
While Vanda’s constrictive room is a rare space of relative constancy — her bed a refuge above the filthy floors, a haven from the decaying outside world — the film often moves beyond the confines of its titular dwelling, and branches out to others who constitute the populace of this sequestered neighborhood. There is Vanda’s mother, usually immersed in an argument of some sort, Vanda’s sister, Zita, who shares her sibling’s narcotic dependence (another sister is in jail), and there is a roster of reappearing young men living similarly destitute lives, only they exhibit a preference for shooting their heroin — a more hazardous, unsanitary and visually repulsive method than Vanda’s inhalation.
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Working on digital video, the occasionally smudged and spotted lens adding a fittingly blotchy mediation, Costa’s careful compositions conceal portions of the frame in shadowy cavities while other images are bathed in natural luminescence. Shot with a correspondingly unremittent camera, with little to no movement, Costa archives these static lives in existential stasis, and the film becomes a piercing portrait of Vanda and the others as they rustle about with a candid obliviousness. The surrounding noises of In Vanda’s Room form a clamoring orchestration of conversation, bickering and commotion; the raucous demolition, which threatens to break down the already dismantling barriers between interiors and exteriors, plays out alongside sounds like, oddly enough, American pop music (“The Power” by Snap!). The beleaguered neighborhood resembles a war zone — Costa likened the rubble to Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist drama Germany, Year Zero (1948) — and throughout In Vanda’s Room, he refuses an establishing shot. The viewer is simply dropped into this world, seldom set free. There is no geographic context for Fontainhas, no sense of where this world exists. Though background structures are seen on the periphery of the frame — in the distance, a foreign city exists just miles away — the film itself is never firmly placed as a segment of Portugal’s capital. Costa begins and remains within. And by lingering within, he imbues In Vanda’s Room, at times, with an uncomfortable intimacy. As an unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall observer, Costa is granted a privileged position from which to examine the detailed minutia of Vanda and her neighbors, their contradictions (“I like things tidy,” says one of the boys curiously cleaning up before the flattening of his room) and their graphic reality (buzzing flies, grappling fleas, the scavenger hunt for cocaine remnants on the crusty pages of a phone book). Costa said he wanted to make a “very precise film about drugs,” and that he does, with the ravages of addiction aurally hammered home by vivid declarations, such as when one male junky recalls the time he was “a walking blood clot.”
Still, there is a rather admirable perseverance displayed by Vanda and her fellow inhabitants. Told her bed is a mess (and it is — it’s disgusting), Vanda argues that it just needs folding. Moments like this suggest a strangely ambivalent denial, despite the awareness of their condition; they admit their fear of withdrawal and potential police raids, and speak at one point of a friend who has recently died. They are alive, after all. They eat, sleep, work (to a certain extent) and socialize with family and friends. With its endless procession of people migrating from home to home like refugees, or popping in and out of Vanda’s room like it was, in Costa’s words, a “public forum,” In Vanda’s Room depicts an unorthodox solidarity, a sense of “we’re all in this together.” There is also a moralistic chicken-or-the-egg sociology brought forth by the film, as one speculates on the extent to which these individuals are products of their environment or their own weaknesses. Death seems near to all, but much closer for some than others (coughing aside, Vanda herself is a gaunt, skin-and-bones outline). And yet, as Costa notes, they endure, and the film never feels like a plea for sympathy. Even if that is the end result.
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Maybe there is something exploitative about In Vanda’s Room, something unethical about watching these wretched lives from comparative comfort. Costa perhaps even recognizes this when he says he is “making art with misery.” But art there is, and Costa, as well as any other filmmaker, straddles and blurs the line between documentary and fictional film. Artificial light sources, clearly considered camera set-ups (posed tableaus and defined close-ups of visually disembodied limbs) and Costa’s direction of people (albeit with considerable freedom) retain their natural vibrancy by his simultaneous utilization of the environment: “The neighborhood was giving me everything,” he commented. The potential for cinematic spontaneity reinforces the precariousness of these individuals and the literal state of this setting. Shot over the course of about a year (against the wishes of those who suggested he leave the perilous area), Costa assembled some 180 hours of footage for In Vanda’s Room. While editing must have been quite the chore, the resulting feature is an accomplished, somewhat paradoxical, balance of measured pacing and tonal consistency and a generally unrestrained disorder, especially in terms of its essentially irrelevant chronology.
In Vanda’s Room is a work brimming with visual and topical contrasts: the sight of children playing amongst the filth, cluttered quarters with the interior design of a hoarder, mundane talk about self-destruction, periods of prolonged silence and references to Tupperware. Costa himself found the film hard to categorize, acknowledging its essayistic features as well as its likeness to an ongoing interview or a straightforward documentary. Whatever its genus, In Vanda’s Room is one harrowing motion picture. It is quite beautiful and very disheartening; it is powerful and riveting. It is also one of the best films from the past 20 years.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.