Blood (O Sangue) Review
It seems that most anyone with a decent level of cinema literacy who's seen Pedro Costa's Blood (O Sangue) can't help falling over one filmic reference after another. The obvious ones tend to be Bresson, Tourneur, Nick Ray, The Night of the Hunter, and so on. In his essay found in this release's booklet, Adrian Martin takes it to the extreme, making mention of no less than 36 different directors. It's a strange tendency but perhaps understandable. There isn't much in Blood that evokes its year of origin (1989). Costa and cinematographer Martin Schäfer shot it in black and white, often in a manner of such extreme shadows and darkness that does bring to mind several of those films and filmmakers referenced. I'd even add Tarkovsky's debut Ivan's Childhood as yet another point of visual reference (though it's The Night of the Hunter that Blood really resembles the most in my eyes). The film's austerity brings out the Bresson comparisons while there's a romanticism that easily reminds the viewer of Nick Ray. But, even if you believe in all of these associations via cinema, the blender Costa uses would seem to be his own. The problem with comparing a film with the works of others or naming influences is that everything gets bundled together like a corporatized "we noticed you like this...we think you might also like this" gimmick. Blood, or any other film which inspires the casual dropping of a multitude of sources from the cinema, should hardly be defined by its perceived inspirations.
Instead, let's admire the filmmaker here for creating a remarkably damaging portrait of lost youth and the effects of (to briefly go back to Ray) "living by night." Blood begins with a shot of the young adult Vicente (Pedro Hestnes) before he eventually receives a hard slap at the hand of his father. The father has a suitcase and is leaving for somewhere. "What am I going tell Nino?," Vicente asks. "That I'm dead," the father replies. At this point so early in the film the viewer has not yet been introduced to the 10-year-old Nino, but he soon becomes an essential character in the picture while his and Vicente's father is critical more in his absence. The older man remains a largely unexplained figure throughout. In truth, he acts mostly as the source of the two boys' problems. Vicente will be expected to make good on his father's substantial gambling debts and young Nino, after a period of living independently with just his brother, finds himself living with his uncle. There's a subtly done sequence late in the film where the two boys are separated physically yet have in common much of the same cold, imprisoned existence that comes with balconies and small rooms in large buildings.
Ethereally gliding (often in a white dress) across the film is a third main character, Clara (Inês de Medeiros, whose sister Maria you might recognize from, among other things, Pulp Fiction). She tends to materialize at just the right moment when needed, though one time it's only her voice Nino hears. Costa presents Clara almost like a fantasy character, and I don't think her role is fully concrete. She isn't positioned obviously as a ghost or angelic figure but she does nonetheless defy the usual rules of human behavior. The film's title - Blood, or O Sangue - derives from the born-in kinship of the word, a bond connecting Vicente to Nino but also the brothers to their father. The relationship with Clara is less clear, and she would seem to be more of an acquaintance (romantically, to an unseen or unrealized point, for Vicente). What I found to be the most indelible scene in the film begins with Clara in that white dress, at roughly the 52-minute mark on this disc, and segues into her moving with enormous joy and abandon alongside Vicente through a local carnival. Costa deprives his film of any musical score except in this single instance when a snippet of, according to Martin's booklet essay, The The's "Perfect" unexpectedly leaps out to give the viewer a smile. The viciously dark blacks contrasting against her dress and then her and Vicente spontaneously running down a hill at the same time make for an absolutely perfect sequence.
Most of Blood certainly doesn't have any of the lightness from those moments. The dominant emotion is more subdued, even somber. Costa seems to underplay much of what occurs in the film. The few interactions with the boys' uncle are the exceptions to this, and, perhaps not coincidentally, they stand out as the weakest portions of the film mostly due to how obvious and worn that line of storytelling has become. An evil family member will always be the wrong kind of conflict. My other point of contention with Costa's narrative is just how unnecessarily opaque he leaves much of the action. I went back and forth along the lines of not being quite clear as to what was happening with the father character and then to thinking I was dense for missing something, before finally concluding that Costa was simply resorting to first-time filmmaker tricks of obscuring the narrative. The problem is that Costa goes a little too far down this path. It's clever for clever's sake instead of working in the film's favor. The artistic qualities of Blood should be present regardless of how puzzling Costa tries to insinuate his seen and felt before, yet undeniably compelling plot.
Blood is still a truly great film debut, a potential watershed of meshing multiple worlds of cinema. It's the sort of picture which compels the viewer to immediately want to continue along the director's journey into his subsequent films. The inky black hues of the photography and the stark yet emotional occurrences in the story combine for a feeling of important, essential filmmaking. After a director establishes a notable body of work it's easy to look back on the debut feature as being that initial step to greatness, but, considering that this is currently the only film of Costa's to even be available on DVD in the UK or in R1, it's entirely fair to view Blood on its own, without the aid of seeing any further works. With that in mind, and eliminating the sometimes forced comparisons to dead filmmakers, Blood is compelling in its maturity against a wall of precursors and impressive in how economically dazzling so many of the shots seem even now, twenty years after the fact. It's predominatly concerning a family struggle without seeming limited to even that narrow of an endeavor. Blood can cross over beyond its niche and beyond its modest beginnings. It is, if there's any doubt, a work of importance and the initial breath of a major filmmaker.
Blood (O Sangue) reaches the watery shores of the UK via the Second Run label. The film, as mentioned above, was the first feature of director Pedro Costa and Second Run has beaten its rivals to the punch by making Blood the first release of a Costa film to be available on DVD in either the UK or North America. Eureka's Masters of Cinema label and the Criterion Collection should be releasing more of his films in the near future. (The latter just promised a box set of Ossos, In Vanda's Room, and Colossal Youth for early 2010 while MoC are known to have the latter two of those also on tap for release soon.) Unlike other Second Run efforts, this PAL disc is not completely region-free, and is encoded only for R2 and R4.
The progressive transfer is in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. No damage or defects are visible. The black and white cinematography looks very good. Contrast is perfectly fine, with the blacks being nicely inky and deep. Grain is present but consistent and pleasing to the eye. Some added level of detail might be possible, but you'd hardly realize this was a 20-year old film just by looking at the DVD. A great job by Second Run.
Audio is provided in Portuguese. The mono track has some buzzing which can be heard at varying degrees and times, though generally it's low enough to avoid being much of a problem. I also noticed one line of dialogue which wasn't translated and an error or two in the subtitles. The few instances of musical addition are reproduced without a hitch while dialogue is clear and otherwise clean. English subtitles are white in color.
The extra features found on the actual disc are limited to an appreciation (filmed in May 2009) by the late critic João Bénard de Costa. This video piece (16:19) consists of Costa reading from his notes as occasional film clips play. Make no mistake, this is very good stuff. I especially enjoyed the comparison on one shot between Blood and Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. It made me take a look at Rebel again to see how close the shot in Blood really was (and there definitely seems to have been some inspiration even if Costa didn't outright duplicate the shot). A photo gallery (2:07) also can be accessed on the disc. It plays without the need of manual advancement.
As usual, a booklet can also be found inside the case. It begins with a few pages from Adrian Martin and a couple more written by Frédéric Bonnaud. I'm hesitant to directly find fault with the specifics of what these gentlemen wrote, but neither essay was particularly enlightening to further my appreciation of the film or Costa. While I generally admire Second Run's booklets well enough, this one just didn't strike me in any positive manner. Most annoying, Martin's seeming compulsion to reference as many directors as possible in his essay, while presumably done to corral Costa's influences for the "burning necessity" he attributes to the filmmaker, borders on the absurd.