Vitalina Varela Review
Pedro Costa leads his audience through seven shades of hell with a quietly intense journey into grief, faith and memory. As with previous films like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, he places us in the heart of Fontainhas, a poor rundown area of Lisbon that has been lit to look like it exists on a subterranean plane. Night-time pervades every facet of the town’s inhabitants, the crumbling stairwells and passageways structured around their lives looking as unstable as their fragile hope.
The film’s title takes its name from a lead actress now given the stage to tell her own real-life story, one which saw her win Best Actress at the Locarno Film Festival, with Costa also being awarded the Golden Leopard. Vitalina featured in his last release in 2014 and here she recalls her existential struggle of travelling from Cape Verde to Portugal decades after being abandoned by her late husband Joaquim. She defiantly tells his male friends that she had “been waiting for my plane ticket to Portugal for 40 years,” and that despite their unwelcoming manner she now “will stay for the rest of my life.”
While Vitalina Varela clearly doesn’t exist in reality as we understand it, at the same time the totality of Vitalina’s personal narrative exudes a fully lived experience. The unassuming opening introduces us to a woman stepping into the shadow cast by a man who lied and cheated his way into and out of her heart, without ever leaving her mind. Her journey is as painful as it is cathartic, and while there is still some grief for the passing of her husband, she is also mourning the passing of time that has left her as a middle-aged woman hitting the reset button on her life.
Within moments of stepping off the plane, Vitalina is told of Joaquim’s passing by a small group of aircraft cleaners, who tell her she should return home as there is nothing left behind in Portugal. The house he owned does not belong to her and his friends only offer mistrust and little warmth at her presence. She turns to a local priest (played by Ventura, another long-time Costa collaborator) who oversees a deserted church in hope that he can offer some solace, but realises she is not alone in her difficulties. “You lost your husband. I lost my faith in this darkness,” he tells her.
And that darkness is one that exists in almost every moment of the film, with only small slithers of light used to decipher the dimensions of the small, cramped property Vitalina now haunts. While she talks bitterly to the ghost of her husband still lingering in the air, she too drifts from room to room in his trail, hoping to find inner peace that will allow her to move on. She, and those around her, are captured by the stark beauty of Leonardo Simões photography, which frames the cloaked stillness of their environment so vividly, yet so mysteriously, it feels nothing short of transcendent in places. It's extraordinary how Costa and Simões manage to compose each moment with such static poeticism of the sort you would expect to see exhibited in an art gallery. That said, the sparseness of light makes for an intense viewing experience that requires a little adjustment once finished.
Although both Vitalina and Ventura have appeared in Costa’s previous work, they are both non-professional actors, which has become an established hallmark of the director’s style. Here they are joined by other locals and non-actors to create a docudrama that despite its elevated classical form is deeply rooted in the truth of their impoverished existence. The plight of the local community is a result of the country’s post-colonial governance, their broken down housing symbolic of the way they have been neglected and worn down in the resulting years.
Costa’s avant-garde style won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but even if you find the sparseness of the story impenetrable, the melancholic beauty of the photography deserves to be lavished with praise. While screens will be limited, Vitalina Varela demands that it is seen on a large screen to fully appreciate the artistry involved. And even though it feels like the most heavy-hearted of all Costa’s films to date, like the now retired Béla Tarr, he continues to offer an insight into the human condition unlike any other.
Vitalina Varela opens in select UK cinemas on March 6.