The peculiar reconfiguration of a small family unit as it flies apart in slow motion under the strain of economic privation forms the rough structure of Teresa Villaverde’s overlong, opaque, yet impressively controlled “Colo.” Demonstrating a paradoxically sure grip on its elusive tone, and unfolding in DP Acácio de Almeida’s detached but striking images that seldom frame the (in)action too closely, like Villaverde’s previous features, “Colo” feels full of authorial intent, and represents a sincere desire to toil toward a far-off, inexpressible truth about alienation and estrangement: the modern malaise of the economically unnecessary. But its nature remains guarded and mysterious, and the immediate effect can be a little like having someone forcefully try to communicate something important to you, by slowly and clearly enunciating every syllable in an elegant language of which you do not speak a word.
Caught as though in a flashbulb’s glare at the exact moment that genteel insolvency turns insupportable, the small central family, living in an aggressively peach-colored apartment in the high-rise, commuter-belt outskirts of Lisbon, where they never see their neighbors, is fractured from the outset. One evening, self-harming teenager Marta (Alice Albergaria Borges), a coltish beauty with a punkily half-razored hairstyle, asks her unemployed father (João Pedro Vaz) where her mother (Beatriz Batarda) is, and Dad replies that she probably will not return, she has probably left him. That he has jumped to that morose conclusion makes him seem perhaps delusionally depressed when her mother does return, explaining that she has got an additional evening job, and that’s why she was late.
But as the story wends its way through days in which the three characters become progressively more removed from one another’s lives, her father’s words start to sound more like prophecy, perhaps the self-fulfilling kind. His palpable aura of guilt at not working while his wife, trying raggedly to support everyone emotionally as well as financially, returns exhausted late each night and they still cannot pay their bills, manifests itself in a progressive retreat from them both, a pulling-away.
Mortified by inadequacy, he shrinks into himself and begins to embark on dangerous shortsighted schemes to make a quick buck, while Marta goes on hedonistic nights out to hear her boyfriend’s band play, discovers her beloved pet bird is sick and her friend Julia (Clara Jost, Villaverde’s real-life daughter) is pregnant. When her mother loses that second job, the electricity is turned off, and it is only a matter of time before the family, for whom physically sharing the same living space is the only real togetherness left, must be separated to cut living costs.
While this overarching story of erosion is going on, individually Marta and her father spend their days on separate, aimless odysseys. Father walks blisters into his feet; after a drugged-up night in the club, Marta and Julia miss the bus and spend a night in no man’s land. Villaverde is interested more in freighted silence than dialogue, and when communication infrequently does occur, it mostly sounds disconnected and vague, with replies not quite matching questions. The effect of this is to put these faraway characters at an even farther remove, though it does add a tinge of the surreal to the periphery of this reality, which allows the final act’s more dramatic events and transformations to feel organic to the meandering plot, despite their strangeness.
Villaverde’s film hails from Portugal, but there is a commonality in its meticulous execution with a subgenre of recent cinema from Latin America, where stories of dissociation and encroaching paranoia like “History of Fear,” “Parabellum,” and “Kill Me Please” have originated. The Portugal of “Colo” is a lonely, striving place where there is no solidarity in struggle, where the family unit, once the irreducible building block of community and society, is pulverized under the weight of social inequity, and where delivery men hover in doorways, waiting to be tipped in tinfoil parcels of food.
Thoreau famously declared that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation … From the desperate city you go into the desperate country,” but that was two centuries ago and an ocean away, and now between those two places lie the desperate suburbs. “Colo” feels like a study in such liminality, the moment between prosperity and poverty, the residential doldrums between city and country, the hesitant oscillation between connection and separation. These are noble, difficult themes to assay, but despite its topicality, clever shot-making, and committed performances (first-timer Borges is a find), it presents a narrative challenge for audiences outside the rarefied festival circuit. After two hours and 16 minutes of alternating engagement and apathy, the less-than-perfectly-patient viewer may feel they’ve come a long way to end up neither here nor there.