Probably too minimalist even for most specialized audiences, "Bones" describes the emotional wasteland of a Creole shantytown outside Lisbon with a chilling rigor that should cull favor and laurels at many festivals. Actors wear a deliberate mask of inexpressiveness in this highly individual work, bringing home a sense of desperation more powerfully than in many realist films.

Probably too minimalist even for most specialized audiences, “Bones” describes the emotional wasteland of a Creole shantytown outside Lisbon with a chilling rigor that should cull favor and laurels at many festivals. Actors wear a deliberate mask of inexpressiveness in this highly individual work, bringing home a sense of desperation more powerfully than in many realist films. Pic’s strongly felt style may establish a cult following for young Portuguese helmer Pedro Costa (“House of Lava” ). The story is not pleasant, however, and viewers with an aversion to downbeat views on life are advised to look elsewhere.

Tina (Maria Lipkina) returns home from the hospital with her new baby and immediately turns on the gas. Her teenage boyfriend (Nuno Vaz) saves the child, only to wrap it in a garbage bag and take it on the street with him begging. After trying to sell the infant to passersby, he leaves it at the house of a nurse (Isabel Ruth) and then with a young prostitute (Ines Medeiros), while Tina and her close friend Clotilde (Vanda Duarte) try unsuccessfully to get it back. Finally they take their revenge on him.

Costa, who also wrote the script, coaches his actors to underact a la Bresson: Faces are permanently catatonic, movements slow and heavy, dialogue practically nonexistent. But rather than breaking through to the spiritual side of these depressed characters, pic underlines their immobility and hopelessness. The only bright note is a deep friendship Clotilde and Tina; nothing else in the film hints at anything beyond life’s drudgery and squalor.

Emmanuel Machuel’s dark-toned cinematography is well suited to the film’s bleak vision, baring the characters’ unhappy souls in staring, open-eyed close-ups. Editor Jackie Bastide leaves shots on the screen an uncomfortably long time, reining in pic’s rhythm to a slow heartbeat, but this too seems to be a stylistic choice. Setting in Lisbon’s racially mixed ghetto, Estrela d’Africa, keeps Costa’s social theme subtly present in the background.

Bones

Portuguese-French-Danish

Production

An Atalanta release (in Portugal) of a Madragoa Filmes (Portugal)/Gemini Films (France)/Zentropa Prods. (Denmark) co-production. (International sales: Gemini, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed, written by Pedro Costa.

Crew

Camera (color), Emmanuel Machuel; editor, Jackie Bastide; music, Wire, Subura; art direction, Ze Branco; sound (Dolby SR), Henri Maikoff; costumes, Isabel Favila; assistant director, Jose Maria Vaz da Silva. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 1997. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Clotilde - Vanda Duarte
The Father - Nuno Vaz
Tina - Maria Lipkina
Eduarda - Isabel Ruth
The Girl - Ines Medeiros
Clotilde's Husband - Miguel Sermao
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