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Friday, January 16, 2009

ossos (bones)--my mini critique

ossos (bones) -

ossos paints a picture of lived experience. The locus of this experience is quite specific -- we as spectators feel the smallness of the impoverished Creole neighborhood in Portugal that seems like the entire world to its inhabitants. But ossos is more concerned with the specificity of how it's characters experience time than in how they experience their limited space. Perhaps it is that the focus on their experience of time is the primary guide to this neighborhood.

When I saw the film, it's director, Pedro Costa, appeared in person and provided some discussion. He mentioned that he started with one basic visual concept which led him to create a story, albeit one muddling distinctions between documentary and narrative. That initial image was of a young father with a young baby.  Ossos lets us in as the story has already begun. We are left with impressions and feelings and images more than we are left with any exposition. Near the beginning of the film, we see a very young woman bring home her newborn. There is a disconnect between her and the child. The mother's eyeline seems to refuse to meet the baby's gaze, and the long durations of shots with little to no action occurring reflect the inner emotional stasis that is experienced both within the mother as well as between her and the child. We are refused emotional outbursts and there is minimal dialogue at best.  In one shot, the mother sits with her child , but the child is on the other side of the couch. The mother sits back, facing straight ahead, and the child is lying down on the far opposite side of the couch...facing the edge of the furniture, unable to experience her mother's face or figure. Not only do their gazes never meet, but mother as director has ordered the space that is created and subsequent blocking of space between them. There is little to no action occurring, the camera position is fixed and the shot length is rather long. The spectatorial expectation of mother-child bonding is summarily refused. Instead, the spectator experiences a lack of physical connection. The spectator is doubled in these characters' inability to identify. The camera's gaze never identifies with either the baby or the mother, whose trajectories never cross. Both are illustrated as occupying different planes in one fixed space, so the length of this emptiness, this grand amount of time in all these shots of mother with child--walking in the hospital, seated in a car, on the stairs, on this couch, becomes our primary experience of a relationship. A relationship that is both a presence (the biological fact of them being mother and child) and a lack (the interior distance).

One of the first times we see this lack of intimacy is when they ride home from the hospital with another, older woman. Perhaps she is the baby's grandmother, but no relations are made explicit. As the new mom blankly looks ahead, the older woman glances at her, trying to meet her gaze. She seems to express surprise, and then busies herself tending to the baby that the mother refuses to bond with. This fleeting image of confusion intimates the mother once had a more intimate connection with her child; meaning before she actually gave birth. Perhaps the distance this young mother is experiencing is as a result of the move from internal connection to external connection. There is a doubling , a unity of consciousness in a woman whose body sustains the life of another. All that changes when the mysterious and unknown entity morphs into its own newly self-sustained, potentially unknowable entity. Many women experience some version of Post-Partum Depression that gives rise to such lack of compassion for one's own child.

Ossos uniquely composes its images with what may be described as contradictory axioms. The film connotes intense emotion that is evoked through physical stillness. This stillness of mise-en-scene and exposition turns spectatorial focus inwards and allows us to question what intense inner processes must be keeping this woman from expressing love for her child.

We first see the father carrying the baby without any narrative set -up or causality established. We can only gather that it has actually happened somewhat later on in the film. The father is out on the street and he carries his newborn in a black garbage bag. The suddenly oppressive sound is strictly diegetic. The frame is now full with pedestrians and traffic-- filling the shot and consistently causing the spectator to lose the father and child in the crowd. The initial move from quiet to noise is mirrored in that it is from the mother and child to the father and child. The stillness of the mother's existence signified a resistance...perhaps to emotional connection, perhaps a resistence to external reality. Later in the film, the new mother abuses narcotics; further resistance by purposefully altering her own perception of time and feelings. With the father, we move to a resistance that is all about acknowledging and facing that external reality. The struggle of the crowded and noisy street points towards the larger struggle the father will soon deal with -- achieving the necessary connection and assitance to feed and care for his baby-- all dependent on his negotiation with externality- - the resistance he finds from the people outside of the immediate family of new mother, new father and baby.

Near the film's end, focus is again resumed inside the house of the mother and her child, perhaps due to an elliptical editing style, but also because the struggle of the father is aligned even closer with that of the mother. A young mother who is never seen feeding or loving her child? She'd be demonized in classical narrative cinema, but what initially seemed like a contradictory experience between the mother and the father is really brought home as a reflection of images that closely parallel one another. Ossos is composed of persistent struggle via stasis. This resistance to external help and the subsequent action to receive it, this refusal to have intimate connection with one's child is simultaneously a fight to save the child from one's own internal/external death. These characters are ghosts that move around the narrative action/inaction quite differently, yet to similar aims. Death seems to seep through them, yet the delay of its onset is as crucial as it is certain. Refusing the conventionality and finality of narrative closure, Ossos' aesthetic refuses us the process as well. There are no clear causal links, no narrative momentum that ever adds up to antything finite; no final stillness or peace.

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