Suffering and Smiling: Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela”
When Vitalina Varela first appears, via a supporting turn, in Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014), which is part of his Fontaínhas cinematic universe, her pull is undeniable, her presence magnetic. Unsmiling, tortured yet unbroken, Vitalina is in conversation with Ventura, Pedro’s everyman hero and Horse Money’s lead character, a working-class Cape Verdean immigrant dwelling in the slums of Lisbon, Portugal.
Five years later, it comes as no surprise then that Costa would present Vitalina this time as the star of her own experience. A singular auteur with an uncommon vision and uncompromising attitude towards cinema, Costa has for the past 20 years chosen to film his movies as collaborations with the actors whose stories he has been entrusted with.
Playing herself — a common Costa trope — the eponymous heroine arrives in Lisbon from Cape Verde, where she has been waiting in vain for a plane ticket that will reunite her with her husband, Joaquim. He was supposed to send for her as soon as he settled in Lisbon. Soaking wet at the airport, Vitalina is met by relatives who explain to her that she is three days too late. Her husband, whom she has been estranged from for the past 30 years, has passed away. He hasn’t left her anything. His house is in ruins, and the neighbors don’t particularly welcome Vitalina. She decides to stay anyway.
What follows is a demanding but striking mood piece that dwells on grief, loss, and the torments of those who are left behind to mourn. Vitalina Varela is a love story, as well as a ghost story — one tethered to bitterness and the ruins of a lifetime of regrets. This enveloping dourness may prove a little too much to take in for audiences who aren’t Costa connoisseurs already familiar with his disillusionment about both Portugal’s social class realities and the world at large.
Costa’s movie is also a study, of the title character and of the language of grief. Vitalina walks around the house that her husband left behind, every room and corridor in a state of disrepair. The spaces that he used to inhabit are filled with specters of a time past, and Vitalina doesn’t need to strain to hear every whispered note. As part of her mourning process, she dredges up memories of people and events gone by, muddying them with her present existence. She, a simple woman with modest ambitions, cannot fathom why anyone would walk away from much more habitable conditions back home to eke out a squalid living in the big city.
Costa of course takes advantage of her circumstance to once again consider the effects of and motivations for emigration, and the reasons he poses aren’t pretty. Vitalina’s memory bank, and the monologues that they transform into, are about the only vectors that drive the film’s plot. Through her recollections, Vitalina reveals that, as a young couple, she and her late husband put all of their energies into building a house back in Cape Verde, which he abruptly abandoned when he left for the city. This information is contrasted with the sorry state of his living conditions just before his death.
There isn’t much that happens in Vitalina Varela, but the heroine, with her steely gaze and electric presence, ensures that Costa’s vision, which blends the epic confessional with bruising neorealism and artistic artifice, is never less than compelling and that no moment is wasted. Vitalina’s face, lined by age and suffering, houses a million stories, and Costa is subtle enough to let her gaze do most of the talking, especially in the film’s first half.
Complimenting Vitalina’s onscreen and offscreen work — she shares screenwriting credit with Costa — is usual collaborator Leonardo Simões, whose heartbreakingly soulful cinematography renders every image, every scene as a loving, delicate masterwork of art. Playing generously with light and shadows, Simões, working simpatico with Costa’s vision, captures Vitalina’s fire and resilience, but also the stark reality of the living conditions of the impoverished folks who people the Costa universe. It isn’t that Simões makes poverty needlessly glamorous, it is more that he is able to find the beauty in despondent circumstances and telegraph it via luminous imagery as a vital, enthralling sign of life. As such, back alleys, mournful gazes, and static shots of fallen men have never looked so appealing.
Because Costa is chronically drawn to broken men (and women), he does not miss a chance to reunite Vitalina with Ventura. This time, Ventura is cast as a despondent priest on the verge of losing his religion. Frail and nursing a neurological condition that manifests as involuntary jerks, Ventura and Vitalina continue their wide-ranging ruminations on living, dying, and what comes after. In these intimate moments, Costa’s film becomes a study of faith, and the ways that people cope with the helplessness of living.
Working on a canvas writ large, Pedro Costa paints an elaborate and epic portrait of living in penurious conditions. He is concerned with big themes — colonialism, war, migration, the environment — but his specific interests lay in how these factors affect the little people at the bottom of the chain.
The world according to Pedro Costa remains a bleak, unwholesome place to exist in. But in a marked departure from his previous work, one that is obviously inspired by Vitalina’s unbreakable spirit, Costa appears to have given at least a half-embrace to some element of redemption.
Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Ventura is now playing at Film at Lincoln Center.