Vitalina Varela

(Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)


Pedro Costa 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).


Before we 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.


The intense 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.


This place 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 congregation anymore.


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).

MORE Costa: Blood, Où gît votre sourire enfoui?

© Adrian Martin April 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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