returns to the discontinuous, wholly re-invented saga of the people of
Fontainhas in Vitalina Varela. As he
has done before, in the movement from In
Vanda’s Room (2000) to Colossal Youth (2006), he has slightly shifted his gaze and his angle, focused anew on
somebody else who had already passed before his camera and performed for it:
Vitalina, the woman seen and heard in – and indelibly remembered from – Horse Money (2014).
arrive at the powerful apparition of this figure, however, Costa inaugurates
his film with a literal procession, and then a slow montage sequence (10
minutes long) of various people entering into their ramshackle places of
dwelling, moving through or pausing at doorways. In these images, any feeling
of belonging to a place – owning it,
tending to it, making it warm or habitable – is severely placed in question.
Signs of blood, of sickness, of death, are everywhere. Even the surrealistic
possibilities of the sometimes imaginary, haunted spaces in Horse Money seem closed off to us, and
to the people we observe in their strangely ritualised daily lives.
process of home-making (which we can
trace in several earlier Costa works) moves to the foreground as the central
subject, substance and activity of Vitalina
Varela. Eleven minutes in, Vitalina disembarks from a modern airplane;
after the opening montage, this sight is a real shock. The story, as it
gradually and enigmatically unfolds, concerns a lost, marital home in Cape
Verde – unfinished, abandoned, glimpsed in the final shot in the processual
state of its joyful construction – and another, far colder, substitute home in
Portugal to which Vitalina has arrived, and within which she uneasily dwells.
belonged to Joaquim, her now dead husband. If he can be considered a kind of
spectre troubling the space (we see his clothes hanging on a line, a collection
of bags hanging off nails on a wall), then she is, in a sense, even more profoundly a living ghost: displaced, regarded with
suspicion, a foreigner, advised to leave. “You arrived too late”, she is told.
“Here in Portugal there’s nothing for you. Go back home”.
And they are
right. Even less than in Horse Money,
there is no court of appeal for Vitalina; all the offices, institutions and
technologies of society are far, far removed from the gloomy place where she
sits, broods, and speaks – speaking to and accusing us, the spectators, in the strongest version of the Brechtian
monologue technique that has grown in Costa’s work. (Jacques Rancière has
offered a fascinating balance-sheet reckoning of the film’s sympathies and
critical distances in his 2020 essay “Two Eyes in the Night”, which originally appeared in Trafic.)
There is a
feminist consciousness here that is striking in the context of Costa’s cinema:
the men now expelled from the centre of attention and the women highlighted,
foregrounded, full of quietly intense frustration, dissatisfaction and anger
(as in the films of Costa’s beloved Yasujirō Ozu, according
to Shigehiko Hasumi). Also, the theme of religion – generally absent, in any
form, from Costa’s previous, agnostic films – acquires a new prominence in Vitalina Varela. Crucifixes, candles, a
sacred process of mourning for the dead: this funereal mood and its material
signs fill the film from start to end. Even Vitalina’s careful way of dressing
herself, wrapping a scarf around her head, acquires a spiritual solemnity.
But this aura
of religiosity is not a shared experience; there is no communion, or community,
of any sort. An anonymous line of local well-wishers pass and disappear
off-screen, offering Vitalina their pale condolences; they share their memories
of Joaquin with her, in bare monologues, but these words give her no comfort or
peace. She serves all these visitors food, out of some residual sense of duty.
But the tear-filled words she addresses to her remembered husband happen in the
adjacent room, alone, as Vitalina shapes her body into agonising, mournful
poses for the camera. Ventura returns, but in a striking new role: as a priest
in vestments, presiding over a church where there is no mass, and no
Should we call
Pedro Costa’s cinema, in the dark light of Vitalina
Varela, an unbroken chain? On the contrary, it’s forever broken, fixed,
re-broken, re-assembled. Broken by life and age and by time and history; fixed,
provisionally, by cinema. Patched up into a place where, for a precious little
while, you can live.
Note: This is
an excerpt from a longer, career-survey text on Costa written for the book Reframing
Portuguese Cinema in the 21st Century, edited by Daniel Ribas & Paulo Cunha
(Agência da Curta Metragem, 2020).
© Adrian Martin April 2020