Vitalina Varela

 

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A chance to explore the unique cinematic world of Pedro Costa.

 

Vitalina Varela

 

Pedro Costa is a Portuguese filmmaker internationally admired and, although Vitalina Varela can stand on its own, this latest work of his follows on from two others, Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014), which now constitute a trilogy about workers from Cape Verde living in the slums of Fontainhas just outside of Lisbon. On one level these are deeply felt social documents, but it is Costa’s remarkable individuality as a filmmaker that gives him his renown while also explaining why his name means little to the general public. Vitalina Varela came tenth in the Sight & Sound poll of the Best Films of 2019 and, yes, that does mean that this is genuine art but of a kind that is slow-moving and demanding in ways that cause his work to be revered in circles that favour the avant-garde and the intellectual.

 

Not having seen a Pedro Costa film before, I approached this one expecting to find it challenging - and it was, but not exactly in the manner that I had anticipated. The titular figure is a woman who, after forty years left behind in Cape Verde, finally arrives in Lisbon to join her husband only to find that he has died and was buried three days earlier. There is little plot here in the conventional sense as we observe Vitalina adjusting to the situation, coming to terms with the final loss of a husband who had treated her badly, talking with his friends who had shared his poverty and visiting the cemetery with a priest (the latter played by Ventura).

 

That may seem little to fill over two hours of screen time but this dark-toned film is composed and lit with absolute precision, a credit both to Costa and to the photographer Leonardo Simões. Furthermore, with music reserved for the final credits, the natural sounds heard make their own contribution to the atmosphere. Somewhat echoing the late Robert Bresson, Costa uses non-professional actors and his leading player, more or less re-enacting her own story, is indeed named Vitalina Varela. She has a great face and a great presence and, although the demands made on her are very different, it is understandable that some have been reminded of the impact of Falconetti in Dreyer’s classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

 

What all this means for those who can adjust to minimalistic cinema is that Vitalina Varela with its unique blend of quasi-documentary and the cinematically stylised (a number of speeches in a film of limited dialogue are monologues spoken not theatrically but almost as a quiet expression of thoughts direct to camera) is very impressive indeed. All that I can take and applaud but, unexpectedly, it is the elusiveness of the text as to meaning and interpretation that seriously undermines the ultimate impact of the film for me. The priest becomes a significant figure but, in an echo of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, he is a man who continues his duties despite having lost his faith. Religion plays a prominent role in Vitalina Varela and some critics have interpreted its last scenes as a journey leading into light. But that comes after another death and still leaves one uncertain what Costa wanted to express in this regard and what his own attitude to religion is. So I end up dissatisfied despite some extraordinary individual art and a memorable portrait of a dignified woman who retains the courage that her husband had lost.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida, Francisco Brito, Marina Alves Domingues, Nilsa Fortes, Lisa Lopi, Bruno Brito Varela, Imido Landim Monteiro, João Baptiste Fortes.


Dir Pedro Costa, Pro Abel Ribeiro Chaves, Ph Leonardo Simões, Ed João Dias and Vitor Carvalho.


OPTEC Sociedade/Óptica Técnica-Second Run.
125 mins. Portugal. 2019. Rel: 6 March 2020. Cert. 12A.