No quarto da Vanda

No quarto da Vanda
In Vanda’s Room
Pedro Costa, 2000, 170’

Pedro Costa’s longest and most challenging film is also the one in which he most fully discovers his present method (shooting beautifully composed tableaux without camera movement in digital video, with scripted dialogue) and subject matter (immigrants from Cape Verde and junkies, all nonprofessional actors playing themselves, inhabiting hovels in a Lisbon slum that are audibly and visibly being razed). The title heroine, who lives with her mother and sister, spends most of her time getting stoned or selling vegetables door-to-door, and we get to know the daily rituals of many of her neighbors equally well. Sandwiched between Costa’s Bones (1997) and Colossal Youth (2006), which feature some of the same people and settings, as well as comparably exquisite lighting and employment of color, this is passionate and demanding chamber cinema of a very special kind. - Jonathan Rosenbaum1


“If it rains for one hour in Lisbon, it will rain for five hours in Fontainhas.”

Teacher, talking about his neighborhood


“The accusation of aestheticism can be met by saying that Pedro Costa has filmed the places just as they are. The homes of the poor are on the whole gaudier than the homes of the rich, their raw colors more pleasant to the eye of the art lover than the standardised aestheticism of petit bourgeois home decorations. In Rilke’s day already, exiled poets saw gutted buildings simultaneously as fantastic sets and as the stratigraphy of a way of living. But the fact that Pedro Costa has filmed these places ‘as they are’ means something else, something that touches on the politics of art. After Ossos, he stopped designing sets to tell stories. That is to say, he gave up exploiting misery as an object of fiction. He placed himself in these spaces to observe their inhabitants living their lives, to hear what they say, capture their secret. The virtuosity with which the camera plays with colors and lights, and the machine which gives the actions and words of the inhabitants the time to be acted out, are one and the same. But if this answer absolves the director of the sin of aestheticism, it immediately raises another suspicion, another accusation: what politics is this, which makes it its task to record, for months and months, the gestures and words which reflect the misery of that world?

This is an accusation which confines the conversations in Vanda’s room and Ventura’s drifting to a simple dilemma: either an indiscreet aestheticism indifferent to the situation of the individuals involved, or a populism that gets trapped by that same situation. This, though, is to inscribe the work of the director in a very petty topography of high and low, near and far, inside and outside. It is to situate his way of working in an all too simple play of oppositions between the wealth of colors and the misery of the individuals, between activity and passivity, between what is given and what is seized. Pedro Costa’s method explodes precisely this system of oppositions and this topography. It favors instead a more complex poetics of exchanges, correspondences, and displacements.”

Jacques Rancière2


“De beschuldiging van estheticisme kan gecounterd worden door te zeggen dat Pedro Costa de plaatsen gefilmd heeft juist zoals ze zijn. De huizen van de armen zijn in hun geheel genomen meer opgesmukt dan die van de rijken, hun rauwe kleuren aangenamer voor het oog van de kunstliefhebber dan het gestandaardiseerde estheticisme van kleinburgerlijke huisdecoraties. Al in Rilkes tijd zagen verbannen dichters ontmantelde gebouwen tegelijk als fantastische sets en als de stratigrafie van een manier van leven. Maar het feit dat Pedro Costa deze plaatsen heeft gefilmd ‘zoals ze zijn’ betekent iets anders, iets dat het politieke karakter van de kunst raakt. Na Ossos hield hij op om sets te ontwerpen om verhalen te vertellen. Dat wil zeggen, hij hield op de ellende te exploiteren als een object van fictie. Hij plaatste zichzelf in deze plaatsen om hun bewoners hun leven te zien leiden, om te horen wat ze zeggen, om hun geheim te pakken te krijgen. De virtuositeit waarmee de camera speelt met kleuren en lichten, en de machine die de acties en woorden van de bewoners de tijd geeft om ‘uitgevoerd’ te worden, zijn één en dezelfde. Maar indien dit antwoord de regisseur vrijspreekt van de zonde van het estheticisme, dan roept het meteen een andere achterdocht op, een andere beschuldiging: welke politiek is dit, die het tot haar taak maakt om, voor maanden en maanden, de gebaren en de woorden die de ellende van die wereld weerspiegelen te registreren of op te nemen?

Dit is een beschuldiging die de conversaties in Vanda’s kamer met Ventura’s omzwervingen samenvoegt tot een eenvoudig dilemma: ofwel een indiscreet estheticisme dat onverschillig is ten aanzien van de betrokken individuen, of een populisme dat gevangen raakt in diezelfde situatie. Dat zou echter betekenen dat men het werk van de regisseur inschrijft in een zeer triviale topografie die onderscheidt tussen hoog en laag, dichtbij en ver, binnen en buiten. Het is zijn werk situeren in een veel te simpel spel van tegenstellingen tussen de weelde van kleuren en de ellende van individuen, tussen activiteit en passiviteit, tussen wat gegeven is en wat gegrepen wordt. Pedro Costa’s methode doet precies dit systeem van tegenstellingen en deze topografie uiteenspatten. Het geeft daarentegen de voorkeur aan een meer complexe poëtiek van uitwisselingen, overeenkomsten en verplaatsingen.”

Jacques Rancière3


Ruben Desiere: How was it then possible to establish a working relationship with the actors? You shoot in their homes. Without a defined working relationship formalized by money, I can imagine that the moment someone leaves to do groceries the shooting is postponed.

Pedro Costa: In In Vanda’s Room that was part of the no-deal. There was no deal. When we shot Ossos, I wasn’t happy and they, especially Vanda, weren’t happy. We talked about it and decided to do something else, to work differently. It was a very vague idea. One day I just appeared with a small video camera, a backpack, a tripod and some Mini-DV tapes. I started like that. Vanda considered it, permitted it and collaborated. I proposed to do something that was more like a documentary. “When you have to do stuff, perhaps I’ll follow you if you want. If you don’t want me to, I will not.” I didn’t know exactly what I was doing; there were no rules. There were moments when she said: “Now I have to leave to sell vegetables.” Sometimes I went with her, to shoot or just to watch. Sometimes, she went somewhere else and I could decide to go with her or not. There was never an interdiction. Sometimes we were tired, of just being there. Sometimes we both felt it was time for me to go. It was a very special thing. There was this contract, this agreement, but there was also a danger, an unknown part. I always say that I didn’t have a producer, that I was alone. This has to do with this danger, no producer would follow me because of this danger. And the ultimate danger was the possibility of Vanda dying.

Ruben Desiere in conversation with Pedro Costa4

  • 1Jonathan Rosenbaum, “In Vanda’s Room,”, 22 november 2007.
  • 2Jacques Rancière, “De Politiek van Pedro Costa,” vert. Jan Masschelein, Sabzian, 2 april 2014.
  • 3Jacques Rancière, “The Politics of Pedro Costa,” trans. Emiliano Battista, Diagonal Thoughts, 13 July 2012. [Originally published in the booklet accompanying the Pedro Costa retrospective at Tate Modern (25 September – 4 October 2009). The French text was published under the title « Politique de Pedro Costa » in Les écarts du cinéma (La Fabrique éditions, 2011).]
  • 4Ruben Desiere, “Interview with Pedro Costa,” Sabzian, 23 June 2021.
UPDATED ON 13.11.2021