The End of Hope
Michael Sicinski on Colo
Colo plays Sunday, January 7, as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2018.
One way to think about Teresa Villaverde’s Colo is to consider it a kind of antipode to Miguel Gomes’s 2015 masterwork Arabian Nights. That sprawling three-film entity, driven by digression and excursus, aimed to confront the 2008 financial crisis and, in particular, the austerity imposed on Portugal by the European Union with a sense of wonder and invention. Gomes tries to do the impossible—think his way out of his nation’s plight—through the power of imagination. By contrast, Villaverde plunges straight into the heart of Portuguese austerity, making a film that is itself austere, displaying the death of imagination, the collapse of options, and the eventual implosion of identity itself. In Colo, three relatively ordinary people, a teenage girl and her two parents, are struggling to make ends meet. But by the end of the film, they are entirely new, having been shattered by trauma and reassembled into damaged, isolated individuals. This, Villaverde tells us, is the psychological toll taken by objective economic and social change.
The central figure is Marta (Alice Abergaria Borges), a high school girl living on the outskirts of Lisbon with her parents. As the film opens, we see her making out with her putative boyfriend, João (Tomás Gomes). We will later learn that she and the boy are having difficulties. They are kissing alongside a tree, and soon Villaverde frames the two on a high bluff over the city, their upright forms disappearing and reappearing through the large trees in the foreground. Colo will frequently engage with the ambiguity of foreground/background, especially as it relates to the solidity of natural forms and the transitory character of people wending their way through the landscape. Everything human is upended in this film, including the stability of “home.”
Upon returning to her family’s apartment, Marta finds her father (João Pedro Vaz) pacing, which is no surprise, as he has been out of work for some time. Marta’s mother (Beatriz Batarda) is late, and he begins to freak out, wandering the entire neighborhood looking for her. At this point, we have not seen anything that would signal that she has one foot out the door. Still, he becomes convinced that she’s abandoned the family, when in fact she has picked up a late shift at her job but couldn’t phone because her battery was dead. This is Villaverde’s first sign that the family is under a unique form of stress. For the most part, Colo does not stage confrontations or arguments. Rather, the film displays effects from unseen stressors and unspoken resentments, giving the impression of a bizarre force or gaseous pressure that insidiously heightens over time.
Shortly after the mother’s “disappearance,” the father really vanishes for more than 24 hours. After having tried and failed to get an appointment with an old college friend to see about a job, the dad hijacks him in the parking lot at knifepoint, forces him to drive to the beach, and tries unsuccessfully to mug him. As he is wandering home in a state of severe injury, the electricity in his house has been turned off. Marta and her mother, who are busily cooking food from the fridge before it turns, take no steps to find him, assuming he’ll return eventually.
This pairing of events displays a broken family unit, wherein an actual emergency is treated cavalierly, while a minor delay is regarded with paranoia and fear. This points to their increasing estrangement from one another. The unemployed father is most clearly the odd man out, his financial impotence leading to a broader sense of uselessness within the domestic sphere. As we see, Marta notices her mother working far more than is seemingly necessary in order to avoid the other members of the family. In Colo, “austerity” is not just a tightening of accounts. It is a movement toward extremes of behavior and an attenuation of social roles. Breadwinners work too much, shifting their identities into a mode of over-functioning, while the unemployed are relegated to the human dustbin.
This sense of an increasing threat of asphyxiation resulting from economic pressure and its attendant failures is subtly emphasized by Marta’s intense relationship with her bullfinch, seemingly her closest friend. Marta frequently takes the bird out of its cage, allowing it to sit placidly on her head, her arm, or João’s thigh. As if to indicate that outside of one prison lay only a bigger, slightly more well-appointed one, the bird is eerily tame. Eventually, it begins showing signs of illness, seeming to register the toxicity of the family around it. Once it dies, Marta’s connection to the very idea of family life begins to disintegrate.
This psychology of extremes forces people away rather than draws them together. Tension reigns. Ordinary actions take on strange, incomprehensible consequences. For instance, Marta walks in on her father taking a bath. Just before she walked in, he had been using a bucket to pour water over his head. Then, unthinkingly, he put the bucket over his head. Marta sees this, thinks it’s odd, and walks out. But her father jumps out of the bath, grabs a towel, and chases her to apologize, assuring her that there was nothing weird about it. In an ordinary setting, this would be seen as a silly action or perhaps just a physical expression of depression. But in the cracking atmosphere of Colo, it is a near-catastrophic gesture. “Don’t tell your mother,” he pleads.
While her mother begins spending more and more time at her (unspecified) job, always with the excuse that the family needs more money, Marta skips school to hang out with her pregnant friend, Júlia (Clara Jost). Eventually Júlia’s parents kick her out, so she comes to stay with Marta and her family. Marta’s father, sensing the girl’s increasing estrangement from him, effectively takes Júlia on as his own surrogate daughter. This is the beginning of the end for Marta’s family unit. Until now, they have been united by a common locale, regardless of their steadily increasing indifference to one another. But by the end of Colo, the family must sell their apartment, with both mother and father moving into different living situations. Marta, left alone in Lisbon, wanders the city until she finds a boathouse where she can sleep for a few days. Earlier in the film her mother insisted that she not worry about the family’s financial problems, telling her “school is your job.” Now, she is effectively homeless and forgotten.
Colo begins by investigating the plight of a family, strained but still intact. But by the end, there is no longer a family. There is a woman who has abandoned her family and returned to a kind of collegiate single life, making ends meet by taking an apartment with a roommate. There is a man who has insinuated himself into a different family that is not his own, an impostor and a potential molester. And there is a teen runaway, prepared to live on the streets of Lisbon, with no job and no prospects. According to Villaverde, the economic crisis caused by Portugal’s austerity program has done more than erode the social safety net and throw thousands off the job rolls. It has disrupted the stability of the bourgeoisie that has traditionally comprised the European middle class. These people are not simply hurting; they are losing the very essence of who they are.
There are many points in the film at which Villaverde conveys this sense of loss through the cold emptiness of space. Not only do we continually see Marta and her father traversing desolate streets of closed warehouses and deserted streets as they move to and from the family’s apartment (which is isolated from the center of town). The apartment itself is under-furnished and undecorated, as though the parents never fully moved in, or have had to sell some of their belongings for spare cash. The kitchen in particular is notable for its lack of decor, made even starker when the electricity goes out. Only Marta’s room is filled with books, posters, and furniture, making her eventual fate all the more ironic. Her parents’ attempts to protect her from the consequences of austerity have failed spectacularly.
In a sense, Villaverde’s film is all about the failure to protect. “Colo” is a Portuguese word that suggests hugging or cradling, with implications of the womb. Villaverde uses the term slyly, but not ironically. The imposition of austerity is supposed to be a kind of pharmakon, the painful operation that ultimately saves the patient. It is constructed by the E.U. and organizations like the IMF as a form of “tough love.” What we see in Colo is instead a kind of smothering, as the evaporation of breathing room turns the family into a kind of death trap. Eventually, the middle-class identity that austerity measures are intended to preserve becomes a carapace, something the characters must shed in order to simply survive. Whether this process results in absolute psychosis, or the birth of a new class of revolutionary subject, remains to be seen.