Behold Vanda’s face. Presumably, she’s still in her early 20s but her skin already has the swarthy lifelessness of a junkie’s, and her limbs are pathetically thin. Her long, dark hair is still beautiful but a visiting friend points out to her how oily it looks, urging her to wash it once in a while. Behold Vanda’s tiny room, which holds little more than her single bed and a trash can. It’s never quiet here: Her mother is constantly yelling from the other side of the wafer-thin wall, and street sounds pour in from the window. On top of that, all the buildings in Vanda’s district are being demolished, which produces a perpetually grating cacophony.
Not that this bothers Vanda much. For much of the film “No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room)” she is seen reclining on her bed, sniffing heroin from a sheet of tinfoil. A three-hour documentary about Lisbon drug addicts, “No Quarto” is an astonishing work that defies all expectations. This is first and foremost a beautiful piece of filmmaking, despite most of the scenes being of people sniffing or shooting up, and most of the dialogue consisting of their half-baked ramblings and complaints.
“No Quarto” has the texture of a 17th-century oil painting (think Vermeer with a digital camera) and much of the ambience comes from director Pedro Costa’s use of natural lighting and the way he frames his scenes. Costa says he was inspired by Yasujiro Ozu, and indeed the camera is always low and unmoving, focused with utter calm on Vanda’s figure as she indulges her habit, alone or with friends. Her face and hands are softly luminous, emerging from the depths of the murky darkness that defines her room (and the rest of her house).
Costa rarely takes the camera outdoors, but when he does, the contrast between the white-hot, sunlit streets and the interior of Vanda’s house is like a slap on the retina. But it’s wrong to read too much into the light/dark contrast, since life on the outside — marked by petty violence, drug-dealing and the ever-present bulldozers — is no better. When you realize that the contrast is a purely aesthetic one, you also recognize that Costa isn’t merely refraining from making social statements but is completely uninterested in doing so.
Perhaps he started out wanting to be the impartial documentarian, but it seems as if he got too close to the material to keep a respectful distance. His camera, after all, is parked right in front of Vanda’s bed 24-7, and it’s obvious that she or anyone else couldn’t care less what he or the lens is witnessing. Having restrained himself from making outright social statements, though, Costa is free to polish his craft of cinematic alchemy, and paint impossibly gorgeous pictures of the chaos and squalor.
That’s not to say he glamorizes his material in any way. If you’ve seen other documentaries about addicts, you become aware of how real-life addiction never matches that in cinema fiction. It takes “No Quarto,” though, to bring home just how devoid of prettiness or joy an addict’s life can be. Vanda makes a mockery of movie myths — like the palpable, sweet high that hits the characters as soon as the needle goes in their arms; the sexy, glazed look in their eyes, their drug-fueled humor and witticisms. She doesn’t even seem to get high or undergo any dramatic withdrawal symptoms; she merely resembles a bottle that had been filled up with dirty drain water. When she speaks, it’s to whine about the cold or to yell at her family — with the exact posture and raspy voice of an old woman. She retches violently between her hits and once she vomits straight into the trash can that’s apparently placed at the foot of the tripod (or perhaps the director’s feet as he holds the camera).
The lens remains fixed on her face during her coughing sessions, which can last for up to a full minute and a half. To calm herself she smokes some more or spews up a rope of phlegm that lands on her bedcover. She looks around vaguely for something to clean it with and when she can’t, just folds the cover over the stain.
Costa moved to Vanda’s district and lived there for two years during the making of this film and became an impartial witness, who saw all and judged nothing. An ancient ghetto occupied by the city’s addicts, hustlers and poor immigrant families, Vanda’s neighborhood was razed not long after Costa completed the film four years ago. Even during the shooting, concrete high-rise apartments were looming above the narrow, labyrinthine alleys and tin rooftops — a sign of what was to come. If Costa allows himself a personal emotion, it is to mourn the disappearance of this neighborhood where human life dwelt in all its naked glory — always an endless source of fascination for the documentarian.
In the end, what surfaces is a kind of awed appreciation that we’re not seeing these scenes in the pages of a book or hanging on a museum wall, but here, in a theater where there’s no escaping the sound of coughs that send spasms of pain through Vanda’s whole body, and the sight of her thin hands as she flicks her lighter in preparation for the next hit.