D: Pedro Costa / 94m
Cast: Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz, Mariya Lipkina, Isobel Ruth, Inês de Medeiros, Miguel Sermão
Clotilde (Duarte) lives in one of the poorest districts in Lisbon, the infamous Estrela d’Africa. She works as a cleaner in more affluent properties, and has a husband (Sermão) who treats her badly and a daughter. When her friend, Tina (Lipkina) comes home after giving birth to an unwanted baby, she tries her best to support her. But Tina isn’t bonding with her baby, and her partner (Vaz) doesn’t want very much to do with the child either. But when he suspects that Tina is trying to kill herself and the baby, he takes it away and tries to sell it on the street. He’s unsuccessful, however, but the baby falls ill and he takes it to a hospital. There he and the baby attract the attention of a nurse (Ruth) who takes an interest in their plight.
She takes the father back to her home and tries to learn more about his predicament, but he’s rude to her and leaves abruptly. The baby is allowed to go home the next day, and its father takes her back to the nurse’s home. He tries to leave it there but the nurse is unable (and unwilling) to take on the responsibility. Clotilde, meanwhile, begins taking Tina with her on her cleaning jobs. But away from these jobs, Tina remains listless and uninterested in the idea of being a mother. When Clotilde is unwell, Tina takes on one of her cleaning jobs, but when the client (who proves to be the nurse) comes home she finds Tina slumped on the kitchen floor with the gas on; she rescues her just in time. The father tries again to divest himself of the baby, and is successful in giving it to a prostitute (de Medeiros).
The nurse visits Tina to ensure she’s okay, while Clotilde returns to work. Matters begin to settle down, but there’s a sense that the father should be made to pay for his actions regarding the baby.
Actually filmed in Lisbon’s notoriously poverty-stricken “Estrela d’Africa” Fontainhas district, Ossos is an unremittingly bleak look at the lives of a handful of its inhabitants. It’s a dark, depressing drama, reflecting the milieu of the district and giving the viewer a glimpse at the impoverished area that its characters do their best to survive in. There’s a telling moment early on when the father is seen striding along a street with the baby in tow, and the reality of the area’s physical decay is evident in the various dilapidated buildings and overall sense of a blighted community. By focusing on this terrible state of affairs, writer/director Costa paints a convincing portrait of blasted lives and the continual struggle to maintain some semblance of “normality”.
Tina’s estrangement from her child is told with a dispassionate faux-documentary feel – indeed the whole movie has that approach – and as a result the movie keeps its distance from its characters, observing them more than engaging with them. The movie contains a mix of static close ups (often held for some time) and medium shots that emphasise the sense of separation that Costa wants the viewer to experience. By keeping his characters at a remove, Ossos becomes more of a social study, and proves gloomily effective as a result.
Making the most of its dismal mise-en-scene, the movie highlights the ways in which even the most disadvantaged try and make the most of what they have (even if it seems painfully little). Clotilde has a job that constantly reminds her of her place in society, her clients’ homes so much cleaner (thanks to her), warmer and welcoming. And yet she perseveres, doing her best to overcome the shortcomings of her own life, and doing her best to help Tina when she most needs it. She’s a good woman who doesn’t know any other way of dealing with the life she lives. In contrast, her husband has given up trying to make any difference in his own life, and is recalcitrant and dismissive of others who continue trying; or worse, who achieve any significant changes.
It’s not entirely doom-and-gloom, but does seem like it. However, Costa finds unexpected humour in the way his female characters interact with each other, their caring attitude and natural affinity reminding the viewer – and themselves – that there’s always hope, even in the worst of situations. It’s a positive message, and one that holds its own amongst the grime and sombre depredations of daily life in Fontainhas. This makes some scenes more rewarding than others, and the movie constantly surprising, despite its uncompromising tone. It’s a testament to Costa’s confidence in his material that these aspects make as much impression as they do.
He elicits quietly understated performances from his cast, with Duarte’s androgynous-looking Clotilde the movie’s early focus. Vaz is appropriately arrogant and childlike, his dogged determination to rid himself of his child the actions of a spoilt teenager unprepared for so much responsibility. Lipkina has the least to do, her fixed gaze cleverly indicating the worlds within worlds that make up her vacant stare. And Roth adds humanity to the piece with her kind-hearted nurse acting as the way in for any viewers having trouble connecting with the other characters.
With the narrative petering out by the movie’s end, Ossos isn’t entirely successful in what it does, but as a penetrating look at the lives of Lisbon’s disenfranchised, it packs a significant punch. The story and plot may be slight but it retains enough of a hook to make it an emotional, and rewarding, viewing experience.
Rating: 8/10 – a minor classic from Portugal, and evidence that slum life can be as positive as any other, Ossos is never far from astonishing thanks to Costa’s considered, measured approach; thought-provoking and resonant on many levels, it’s a movie that honours the residents of Fontainhas, and does so without being in any way pretentious.