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May 30, 2011 | by  | in Film |
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Extreme poverty kills cultural specificity. The international success of Kiwi masterpiece Once Were Warriors is partly due to the fact that it could have been set in a similarly destitute place worldwide without having to tweak much of the narrative. In the same way, Pedro Costa’s 1997 breakthrough film Ossos could have been set in Latin America, India or even South Auckland. The film’s inhabitants are too busy trying to get by from day-to-day to celebrate their culture and their slums are out of sight from any landmark that would add any identifiability their location.

Although there is no way to tell by looking at it, Ossos is set in Estrela d’Africa, a ghetto in Lisbon primarily populated by African migrants. Its loose narrative follows a number of characters including a newborn baby, his estranged parents, the mother’s devoted friend, a young prostitute and a nurse who tries to make a difference in the lives of these other, much poorer characters and ultimately fails. An exercise in minimalism, the dialogue is sparse, the performances are understated and most scenes unfold within a single, often stationary shot. It makes no attempt to romanticise or sugar-coat its themes and it unfolds with a deliberate pace showing all the nasty aspects of poverty unflinchingly. There are no Slumdog Millionaire moments of joy to be had, just begging, attempted suicide and empty sex. The result is a very uncomfortable, difficult watch but a nonetheless noble exercise in filmmaking.

Although Costa might have been trying to make a specific point about a part of the city with which he was familiar, the generic nature of the setting means that the film gains universal meaning. With depression rather than catharsis the most likely response, Ossos is a commanding rebuttal agains*t any work that tries to glamorise the lives of those who have not.

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