Pedro Costa’s new eight-minute short film The Daughters of Fire is more daring, more formally complex, more beautiful than almost any other recent work one could think of, regardless of length. It begins with a fade in on three panels, arranged from left to right as follows: a shoulders-up closeup of a woman in half-profile, walking (or gliding) past what appears to be a glowing red wall (more on that below) as the camera moves slightly in front of her, following her movement; the second: a woman laying prone on dark, ashy ground, the horizon behind her a kind of glowing orangish-red with swirling black clouds hovering ominously; the third panel is another closeup, this time of a woman peering from behind a doorway or wall, staring directly at the camera. Three distinct compositions, one of movement, one of stasis, the other a bold acknowledgment of the audience.
Each panel displays Costa’s favored mode of digital cinematography, a rich chiaroscuro with intermittent blotches and fields of color emerging from darkness. After establishing each composition, music starts playing and the women begin singing, separately at first but gradually overlapping and then syncopating; the song is a somber reverie about a “terrible day” and being alone, and the need to carry on in the face of death. Suddenly, at around the six-minute mark, the song tapers off and the three panels fade out, before cutting to something entirely different. Three images give way to only one — the classic square academy ratio, the muted colors, and the tell-tell flicker of actual film immediately signify archival footage. This two-minute epilogue observes men walking around rocky terrain, a volcano looming ominously in the background.
The music of the first section comes courtesy of the group Os Musicos do Tejo, who Costa has collaborated with on a series of stage productions. The women — played by Elizabeth Pinard, Alice Costa, and Karyna Gomes — are singers, but also from Cape Verde, intrinsically linking them to Costa’s larger body of work. Taken alongside the silent footage of the second section, Daughters reveals itself as a study in contrasts, certainly, part of Costa’s ongoing pursuit of finding harmony in disharmony. The velvety digital textures of the first movement give way to the tactile physicality of 16mm film in the second; likewise the deep, saturated colors Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões (Costa’s DP since Colossal Youth) have conjured versus the blown-out, muted palette of the archival film.
In a wide-ranging interview with curator and Outskirts Magazine editor Christopher Small, Costa reveals the genesis of the short — that it was intended as a proof-of-concept for a longer feature-length film, that the women all filmed their sections of the triptych on a studio soundstage, and that the flickering, undulating colors were actually created via rear-projection. Here, Costa explains that the documentary footage was shot by Orlando Ribeiro, who was present for the aftermath of a 1951 eruption, and that Ribeiro was actually one of Costa’s professors in the 1970s. As Small observes, the non-English translation of the film’s title is As Filhas do Fogo, which names both a volcano — Pico do Fogo — and the island where it is located, off the coast of Cape Verde. Costa has a long-standing fascination with the volcanic, and its presence here undoubtedly links Daughters not only to his own film Casa de Lava — and therefor Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie — but also Rossellini’s Stromboli. And of course, a documentary coda that recontextualizes what has come before it can’t help but recall Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. The Daughters of Fire is a startlingly complex mélange of 20th-century modernism, a series of influences and references repurposed into something bold and original. It’s a small, succinct, and yet somehow still expansive masterwork from one of the greatest of our contemporary filmmakers.
DIRECTOR: Pedro Costa; CAST: Alice Costa, Karyna Gomes, Elizabeth Pinard; DISTRIBUTOR: The Cinema Guild; IN THEATERS: December 1; RUNTIME: 9 min.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3.