Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson in just how far a strict adherence to formalism over narrative structure can be taken, yet for cinephiles less bewitched by the way he creates vacuums between characters, and his insistent reliance on rigidly composed images to generate intellectualized emotions, his works are distancing and cold. “Vitalina Varela” will create animated debate between the uneven camps, and for those less inclined toward Costa’s brand of cinema, only the powerful screen presence of the lead, whose life story this is, saves this punishingly dark work from drowning in its own purposeful opacity.
Were Costa to organize an exhibition of stills from the film, he and his DP Leonardo Simões would surely win more fans: As a series of fixed images hanging on a wall, such photos would testify to a rigorous approach to lighting and framing. They’d also likely create a greater sense of empathy in the beholder, who could emotionally enter the picture and imagine backstories at their own pace and with a greater sense of psychological acuity than what’s revealed in the film. Instead, Costa’s elongation of time (made more acute since there’s rarely enough light coming from the screen to check your watch) combined with his habit of doling out a few narrative details without exploration, results in a film that distances spectators not already in his thrall. That won’t stop juries from awarding “Vitalina Varela” prizes, though beyond festivals and cinematheques, it’s hard to imagine where else she might travel.
The problem isn’t the lack of a story but rather its piecemeal nature — less narrative would have made the film feel truer to a certain kind of avant-garde cinema, and perversely could have increased an emotional connection much in the way that studying a powerful photograph allows the mind to imagine an infinite number of possibilities. Press notes tell us that Costa’s film is the true story of its protagonist Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verde woman who arrives at Lisbon airport three days after her estranged husband’s burial. The opening scene is a marvel, shot at night (like 99% of the film) in a narrow alleyway with walled cemeteries on each side; a procession of mourners is first glimpsed in the darkness thanks to the reflected light off a walking cane. Shortly after, Vitalina disembarks barefoot from a plane and is greeted by a group of largely silent cleaning women, who tell her she’s too late and should go home: “There’s nothing here for you.” Instead, she goes to her husband’s dilapidated hovel in a Lisbon slum, accepts the condolences of strangers, and remains in this unfriendly, foreign land that’s unwilling or unable to offer her any support.
Most of the dialogue in the film comes in monologue form, with barely any conversational interchange. From these, we learn that Vitalina was married to Joaquim in 1982, sometime after which they began to build a house together in Cape Verde. He went to Lisbon, came back once, and then completely disappeared, never getting in contact again. Vitalina learns he was in jail at some point, but never discovers why he left her without a word. Some will argue it doesn’t matter, that her sorrow is enough, and while there’s something to that, the film’s refusal to even hint at why apart from poverty she chooses to remain in Portugal in her husband’s crumbling dwelling (not to mention how she learned of his death), doesn’t keep attention on her dignity-in-grief but rather forces unresolved questions to the surface.
The addition of an aged priest with Parkinson’s (Costa regular Ventura) brings together two independent, brokenhearted souls: her trapped in a life of hardship denied the love of a husband still recalled with fondness, and him bound by a religious calling starved of a flock. In one of the few dialogue exchanges, he tells her he lost his faith in this darkness, but she berates him: Men only take other men into consideration, leaving women unsupported and kept in the shadows. It’s a universal truth, and one of the few genuinely powerful statements made, yet through it all, as we contemplate this life of unrelenting privation in which memories of a once-loving partnership remain fixed in her mind, it’s hard not to question why Costa gives us so little of this love to sustain us. He shows love for the image, love for the externals — how a shaft of light falls on a crumbling wall, the way Vitalina’s weariness is emphasized by shadows around her large, expressive eyes. And clearly Costa is in love with the monumental presence of this woman, with her aura of an opera diva. But the love she feels for Joaquim, that’s meant to explain her decades of waiting and her acceptance of this fate? The love for a person over an aesthetic? That’s not in the film, through no fault of the majestic Varela.
Perhaps none of Costa’s films have ever reveled in darkness as much as this one, shot almost entirely at night or in dwellings that allow for only sharp-edged shafts of light to illuminate the dingy surroundings that literally crumble onto Varela’s head. Two brief flashback scenes in Cape Verde offer the sole vision of blue skies, creating a jarring contrast with the inky blackness everywhere else.