The Sounds of Bones (Ossos)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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Although the trailer does not do it justice, the sound of Ossos (Pedro Costa, 1997) is what I cannot get out of my head. [While most of the film has no music on the soundtrack, the trailer has an engaging rock song laid over it.]

If you do not already know Ossos (Bones), it is a 1997 Portuguese/French/Danish film written and directed by Pedro Costa, featuring Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz, Mariya Lipkina, and Isabel Ruth. Ossos is shot in the “Estrela d’Africa,” Fontainhas district of Lisbon–a pocket of economic poverty, cultural/ethnic diversity, and migrant relocation (especially from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde)–that has since been demolished, displacing the residents and the layers of the internal society portrayed in the movie.

Ossos depicts Clotilde (Duarte) and her immediate circle–Tina (Lipkina), an unemployed young mother, Tina’s unemployed lover (Vaz), their baby, and Eduarda (Ruth), a middle-class nurse who becomes involved in their situation.

Very little happens in the film after we meet the characters. Tina attempts suicide repeatedly. The father barely functions and attempts to desert and then sell the baby to a sex worker. Eduarda helps with food, money, and shelter in one scene, but her motives are never clear: Does she want the baby? The boyfriend? Tina? Self-satisfaction? Clotilde has a husband and two children of her own but attempts to support her friends throughout the film: bringing Tina and her baby home from the hospital, helping Tina find work, and being her friend.

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Narratively, what is most interesting about the story and discourse of Ossos, though, is the film’s non-dramatic display. Rather than feature the dramatic scenes of daily life in this district and the middle-class neighborhoods and cutting the transitional moments, the film eliminates the dramatic actions and shows the transitions. This inversion of standard filmmaking discourse demands viewers stay involved in the very quiet, very muted scenes in order to fill in what has just happened and what is happening next. To “follow” the story, we have to watch for clues in the least dramatic moments: In a terrific lateral tracking shot, we see the boyfriend carries a garbage bag down a street but then begins to craddle it; later we see him holding the baby outside a subway stop asking for help. Was he just carrying the baby in the garbage bag? Did Tina throw him and the baby out of their house? Is he going to keep the baby? Is Tina dead–since she was attempting to gas herself and the baby in the previous scene? The film keeps going, like the boyfriend walking with the bag. It never shows us what was inside, so we have to keep looking and thinking.

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In another way, the film also confounds us and makes us work through visual blurring. The film is filled with closeups of faces, faces that almost all resemble each other. (Interestingly, the Cape Verdean characters are much more differentiated from one another.) Are these two women sisters? Are they cousins? Are they related in some other way through the boyfriend, who also resembles both of them so much? This resemblance between characters is highlighted further by the fact that they stare. There is little dialogue in the film, but a lot of sober and intoxicated staring. They all appear to be standing or sitting somewhere but never present, always looking inside rather than at what is happening around them.

And, that “around them” in the district is filled with sound–muffled voices, music, crashing, children shouting, men barking demands, radio broadcasts, feet dancing or shuffling over the wet pavement. The soundscape of Ossos gives the impression of how closely together the inhabitants of Fontainhas live, how intersected their lives are, how indistinct are the boundaries–desultory and celebratory, while fighting or partying (or sometimes both simultaneously)–how stark and isolated are the middle-class lives their work makes possible. In the end, the soundscape gives us the impression that one does not so much live in the district or inhabit it, even, but is submerged in it. The muted colors and muffled sound are like looking and hearing through sea water. But, are these characters drowning, swimming, or just drifting on the current? The good and bad thing about a film such as Ossos is that it deploys the bare bones of their lives but withholds judgement, leaving that work for us.

Ossos is the first film in Costa’s “Letters from Fontainhas trilogy, which also includes No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000) and Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006). Vanda Duarte features prominently in all three films, and I look forward to sitting down in her room as soon as possible.

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