Pedro Costa: a reference in the contemporary cinema of Portugal

A journey through Pedro Costa's films.

Pedro Costa is a key member of the 1990’s generation of filmmakers from the Lisbon Theatre and Film School (Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema). A singular case in the last thirty years of Portuguese cinema, his work is famous for its radical and minimalist style, and the exploration of sensitive questions regarding the marginalized groups of Portuguese society – mainly the communities of Cape Verdean immigrants and Portuguese citizens with Cape Verdean ancestry.

VITALINA VARELA Director Q&A | TIFF 2019 (21th Century) by TIFF TalksVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2019, talking about Vitalina Varela and the creative process of his work.

Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela, Darkness, and His Filmmaking Process | NYFF57 (21th Century) by Film at Lincoln CenterVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Again, Pedro Costa discusses his creative process at Film at Lincoln Center, in the same year Vitalina Varela is released (2019).

Masterclass: Pedro Costa | IFFR 2020 (21th Century) by International Film Festival RotterdamVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa's masterclass at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (2020). The director talks about his experience as a filmmaker and his filmmaking style. He mentions the work of filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and Charles Chaplin.

The beginning of a career

Island of Fire (Cape Verde), where Down to Earth/Casa de Lava (1995) was shot.

The Blood (20th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 1990

The Blood is the first full-length feature directed by Pedro Costa, and already reveals the lugubrious atmosphere that would mark his cinema. However, The Blood has some formal characteristics that Pedro Costa would progressively renounce in his following films (the sinuous camera movements, the light and shade treatment, in short, all the mise-en-scène that appeals to the conventional cinematic devices). Even so, The Blood already marks a rupture on the Portuguese cinematographic scene. Before The Blood, Pedro Costa had directed a short feature entitled É Tudo Invenção Nossa (1984), included in the series Cartas a Júlia/Letters to Julia.

Down on Earth (20th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 1995

Down to Earth follows Mariana (Inês de Medeiros), a nurse working abroad on Fogo Island, Cape Verde. From the close-ups to the wide shots, Pedro Costa seems to include cinematographic references that remind us of Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) or Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The letters that the inhabitants of Cape Verde gave to Pedro Costa while on location, asking him to deliver them to their families, inspired the filmmaker to make the following films, set in the Fontaínhas neighborhood – a trilogy known as the Letters from Fontaínhas.

The Letters from Fontainhas and the portrait of a community

The Estrada Militar (Military Road), where adjacent neighborhoods were constructed to host vulnerable and marginalized people. Many of these neighborhoods were demolished (Bairro das Fontainhas, Bairro de Santa Filomena, Bairro Estrela d’África), causing the displacement of many families. Most of the residents of this neighborhood are of African descent and many were born in Portugal. This area is the setting for some of Pedro Costa’s films, both before and after the demolition of the neighborhoods.

Bones (20th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 1997

Bones is the first film in the Letters from Fontaínhas Trilogy. The film shows the ever present and devastating effects of colonialism, namely the social reproduction schemes which affect the communities of that neighborhood, known as Estrela d’África (Star of Africa). Bones follows two adolescents (a boy and a girl), who were parents of an unwanted child; between Lisbon’s downtown and the neighborhood, the film emphasises the striking contrast between the capital and the suburbs, under a melancholic gaze which permeates the narrative.

In Vanda's Room (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2000

It is said that Vanda, an actress from Bones, was not satisfied with that film; and so, she asked Pedro Costa to direct another film in the Fontaínhas neighborhood – that film is entitled In Vanda’s Room, shot with a small mini-DV camera. It is a film free from all the cinematographic devices used by Pedro Costa in his previous films. In Vanda’s Room interconnects several stories from the inhabitants of the Fontaínhas neighborhood, which is being destroyed by bulldozers on the instructions of the Lisbon Municipality Council. The neighborhood is also home to Cape Verdean immigrants, or Portuguese citizens with Cape Verdean ancestry, a community that deeply inspired Pedro Costa in his subsequent films.

Colossal Youth (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2006

Colossal Youth is a sequel to In Vanda’s Room, focusing on Ventura’s perspective. Ventura is a Cape Verdean man that represents the yearnings and frustrations of the immigrant community from Cape Verde – a community disappointed with the post-April 25 unfulfilled promises: the social inequalities, the consequences of colonialism, the issue of the reception and social integration of immigrants. However, Ventura will continue to seek his way, looking into his past and reflecting upon his experience in those two countries he feels he belongs to, despite all the adversities: Portugal and Cape Verde.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (21th Century) by Tiago Vieira da Silva/Joana CanasVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Experimentation in cinema

In the image we see a reference to Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?(2001), a film about the editing process of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet's Sicilia!(1999)

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Où gît votre sourire enfoui?
Pedro Costa | 2001

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in the editing room, working on Sicilia! (1999). A movie about the moving image and the experimenting of film-making resources, it functions also as a tribute to two filmmakers intrinsically linked, and therefore, as a tribute to cinema – through a deep reflection on the process of artistic creation.

6 Bagatelas (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2001

A short film based on footage not included in the full-length film Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

The End of a Love Affair (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2003

A one-shot short film wherein a man appears alone in a room, The End of a Love Affair aims to portray his state of mind in the aftermath of a love affair.

Caça ao Coelho com Pau | curta-metragem do filme Memórias
Pedro Costa | 2007

Tarrafal, The Rabbit Hunters and Our Man are short features that, as a whole, make us reflect on the cinematographic image and its variations – the shots are repeated in the three films, but the motifs change, gaining new treatments and meanings. But there is one central motif: the characters that live in Portugal but dream of Cape Verde, remembering their past and trying to guess their future.

Change Nothing (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2009

The movie title comes from a song by Jeanne Balibar. Filming the singer’s repetitive and exhaustive working process, Ne Change Rien reminds us of Pedro Costa's 2001 film Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, that it is also a look at the complex process of artistic creation, the act of learning and the importance of making mistakes. Pedro Costa enters that intimate world, where bodies gain expression through shadows and repetitive movements, granting it a dimension that only cinema is capable of. This narrative was initially explored in 2005, in a short feature film of the same title.

Ventura and Vitalina's stories

The city of Guimarães was elected, alongside Maribor, Slovenia, European Capital of Culture 2012. 'Historic Center' was a film produced in this context, signed by four filmmakers, including Pedro Costa (with the segment 'Sweet Exorcism') 

Sweet Exorcism (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2012

Sweet Exorcism, a short feature from the movie Historic Center, with the participation of Aki Kaurismäki, Manoel de Oliveira and Victor Erice, is similar, in concept, to Tarrafal, The Rabbit Hunters and Our Man. Besides being a preamble to Horse Money (2014), Pedro Costa’s following film, it is also an exploration of the meanings that editing can attribute to the cinematographic image, and a reflection on the motifs the filmmaker would subsequently explore in the full-length feature film format.

Horse Money (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2014

In Horse Money, Ventura is still immersed in his past, in a restless search for meaning in his life. In this film, Pedro Costa restores certain cinematographic conventions in order to create a poetic, sometimes surreal, evocation of memory. Horse Money establishes a hybrid universe, merging the past and the present, Cape Verde and Portugal, in a dreamlike narrative: a dream where Ventura reflects upon his experiences and his past, bringing to life the aspirations and anguishes of the Cape Verdean community. Winner of Best Director of 2014 at Locarno Festival.

Vitalina Varela (21th Century) by Pedro CostaVirtual Museum of Lusophony

Pedro Costa | 2019

Vitalina Varela follows the eponymous character, a middle-aged Cape Verdean woman who arrives in Portugal a few days after her husband’s death. As in Horse Money, Pedro Costa creates an oneiric universe that works as a melancholic reflection upon the Cape Verdean community and its link with Portugal. Winner of Best Picture and Best Actress of 2014 at Locarno Festival.

Credits: Story

Cover illustration: Tiago Vieira da Silva
Image processing: Joana Canas


Costa, J. B. (2009). No Quarto da Vanda, Pedro Costa, 2000. Foco. Retrieved from

Ferreira, C. M. (2017). Pedro Costa. Lisboa: Edições Afrontamento.

Oliveira, L. M. (2014, November 3). Casa de Lava. Disco Duro. Retrieved from

"Blogue Disco Duro: Casa de Lava"

"Foco: Revista de Cinema"

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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