Review: Vitalina Varela

Director: Pedro Costa

Stars: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida

A new Pedro Costa film invites excitement and intimidation in those fond of world cinema and the art-house. His work can appear impenetrable, linked as it so often is with a very particular and specific cultural identity; that of Portugal’s black community and its storied history. Costa’s inimitable style doesn’t make the approach any easier to the unfamiliar or uninitiated. Still, the boldness of the work is riveting on its own terms and makes the arrival of a new project something of a must-see, even if experiencing the thing can have the same dizzying, stifling effect as digesting a new Autechre release. The shape, space and texture of what’s being offered is so divorced from easy comparison.

Vitalina Varela opens, typically, in gloom. Gloom so dark that you can’t immediately discern the film’s aspect ratio (it’s 1.33:1). The wall of a graveyard greets us and so death permeates from the beginning.

Travelling to Lisbon, Portugal from Cape Verde, the titular Vitalina Varela (herself) arrives too late to see her dying husband. He’s three days in the ground, his possessions and the coverings of his deathbed already burned as though expunging his life from memory. Annihilating the past.  Varela visits the darkened shanty-like community he died among, in spite of warnings that there is nothing for her there. In this closed, secretive and mournful society, darkness doesn’t just hide a multitude of sins; it is the defining aspect of the territory. It both shrouds and imprisons the people there. A comforter and a jailer. The micro-climate is cavernous. It often feels as though events are taking place in a mine or a crypt; a place where death’s permanence is permanently dwelled upon. All inhabitants feel like ghosts.

“I don’t trust you in life or in death,” Varela speaks to her dead husband while addressing the camera, suggesting that we the audience fill in for the deceased and also that the line between the two states here is porous or arbitrary, underlying the zombie-like mood inhabiting the picture. We are invited into that smudged limbo state.

This is a film of mourning and, from Costa, that’s as oppressive as you’d expect. As with his prior film Horse Money he suffocates with pregnant silences. They add weight, they bear down on us. Where his previous felt entirely unmoored from time, there’s a greater sense here of a somewhat-contemporary setting. A grimy 2005 calendar, the in-scene appearance of some techno music from a ramshackle club. Still, these feathered-in touches don’t dispel a similar sense of limbo and entropy; of a community shackled to an inescapable past trauma, defined by bad fortune and victimisation.

Locals paint a picture of a slow decline into illness precipitating her husband’s death, but we’re shown a bloodied pillow and bed sheet suggesting a far more violent end. In this we sense secrets. In Varela’s face we see distrust. Costa’s tightened frame reinforces the sense of a closed-rank community. Pulling up root vegetables, Varela shows her intention of unearthing what’s hidden.

Varela speaks of the disparity of the life they made in Cape Verde compared to the squalor of Portugal, suggesting a more plentiful existence abandoned by her husband for the false-promise of European prosperity. One of the feelings most consistently expressed throughout Vitalina Varela is of the transitory. Of having lost a sense of home. Be that literal or mortal. Varela’s words carry a history of toil and hardship in contrast to so many depictions of white western complacency, images that make up so much of the cinema we are generally exposed to here in the UK. Costa’s vision is alien, but that is part of the point, one feels. In its darkness comes exposure. His work can be a sharp slap to the face. Watching, I felt my own ignorance and privilege exposed.

Calling Vitalina Varela more conventional is broadly misleading and dangerous, only fitting within the context of Costa’s recent past. Still, I managed to eke a traditional narrative from the film, which is more than I can say I achieved with the aforementioned Horse Money. I want to underscore, however, that this is an austere art-house monolith through-and-through. A dark object for us to reach and touch and in doing so attempt to glean meaning and a wider impression of the world we share. Costa’s art is harrowing and haunting; raw reactions that vault cultural barriers.

“There will be no more death, Nor mourning. Nor pain. Nor tears,” says the priest, recreating the funeral service for Varela. Sadly, we do not believe him. Indeed, he collapses shortly after these words are uttered. Nevertheless, a late appearance of blue skies – symbolising life and brief hope – is an oasis of optimism in this yawning chasm of a picture.


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