On Fridays we look at films from elsewhere in the world and usually, we go for a film that is a tad older. This week however we are going very current, so we go to Pedro Costa unforgettable Vitalina Varela.
After multiple decades a Cape Verdean woman finally makes her way to be with her husband in Portugal only to discover that not only has he just passed away but that he has already been buried. Deciding to stay she begins discovering what life he was living without her.
Vitalina Varela’s performance at times reminds very much of Rene Jeanne Falconetti’s performance in the masterful 1928 film Joan of Arc. The control of her expressions in every scene and specifically every close up, is awe-inspiring. We first saw Vitalina in Pedro Costa’s previous film House Money, where she recanted this portion of her life. That is what makes her performance stand out more, she has already lived this story, and it is devastating.
Vitalina doesn’t grieve for her husband, she grieves for everyone still left behind. For most other hopeful immigrants from Cape Verde, who have moved to Portugal, they now live in the slums of Lisbon and do not seem to know how to escape their dire situation. They are simply waiting until like Vitalina’s husband, until God calls upon them to leave.
Which brings us to our other character of note in Vitalina Varela is Ventura. The priest who has lost his flock, empty chairs and sparse light mean one of his few duties to his community is to assist with burying them, one by one, until only he is left. He cannot raise the spirits of these broken, defeated people who once hoped of a better life for them and their families. That has now gone from their grasp and the last thing they had left to cling onto, their faith, is all but gone too. Much like Varela, Ventura has a captivating presence about him, he was born to be on the screen and it is clear as to why Costa has made him his muse.
As good as the performances are (and they really are something special), the cinematography from Leonardo Simoes is breathtaking. Each frame would not be remiss in an art gallery. Almost every scene is set at night or inside in deep darkness, so when colour and brightness does fill the frame it actively pops. The movements of the camera are slow, like a lot of Costa’s films, but they are purposeful, we see only what we need to see, there is no wasted camera movement. This is a story of isolation and slow suffocation in an unknown world and the camera accentuates that immensely.
There is magic in these images, lights perfectly placed throughout to show the desolation of its characters, the pain, regret and myriad of emotions in their eyes as they look off into the distance, rarely looking at one another. This pinpoint lighting technique further enhances the soliloquies of their past lives. Costa decided to par down his crew, limiting it to a team of five. This is what makes the film all the more inspiring, to see how this crew framed it and careful thoughtfulness of each frame helps it rise above others.
We are shrouded in the darkness throughout the film, whether it be from the clothes, shadows or nightly events, we like the characters do not escape it until it stifles us to the point of breaking. Daylight sneaks around the film, we see it in gaps of the roofs of these concrete crumbling homes, begging to come through for these people. Not until the end does daylight finally come and when our mourning is subsiding. Is this daylight our future or just remnants of our past coming out to ease us for just a brief moment? Either way, it is welcome and needed for these characters.
Pedro Costa, of course, is no stranger to this methodology of filmmaking, the viewer has to be not only patient but aware. Costa has documented the slums of Fontaínhas since 1997 and when the residents were moved from slums to a high rise he kept going. Interestingly Costas filmmaking has evolved with every film, in previous films his work would be of a bolder and in your face style, yet with Vitalina Varela we have a filmmaker who has calmed and taken on dreamlike composure. Unlike his previous films, this is as linear as Costa gets, usually, he roams around the world is documenting, but here we have a plot that makes sense.
Keeping with his socially conscious sensibilities, Costa shows the past and current trauma of all of his characters, Vitalina grieves in monologues and flashbacks to a time when she and her husband were happier. Showing others in the neighbourhood shuffling, stumbling around, he has portrayed a world where people are merely surviving. Costa is a filmmaker who humbles and gets remarkable performances from his actors, especially from non-actors and this continues here.
There is the chance that audiences will not be able to cope with the stillness of this film. But patience truly is key here as the rewards for sticking with the film and letting it envelop you as a viewer are so rewarding. Vitalina Varela is a haunting tour de force of a film and one that in a perfect world it would have as wide an audience as possible, hopefully now that it is released digitally it will obtain that. For this is cinema at its most essential and best.
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