Director: Pedro Costa
Screenplay: Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela
Starring: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida, Francisco Brito
Running Time: 124 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Pedro Costa is a unique voice in modern cinema. Though he has always focussed his attention on making films about the difficult lives of those marginalised by society, from Vanda’s Room onwards, Costa has taken this a step further by collaborating with Cape Verde immigrants living in Lisbon slums to turn their lives into haunting, powerful works of cinema.
Whilst filming Horse Money in 2013/14, Costa came across a woman named Vitalina Varela and found her story incredibly moving, so had her appear in the film, delivering a monologue about her experiences. This story so affected Costa, that he decided to make his next film about it. This became Vitalina Varela, a film that went on to win great acclaim at festivals and with critics. It’s being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Second Run, so I gave the disc a spin and my thoughts follow.
Vitalina plays herself, recreating the period in her life when she travelled to Portugal from Cape Verde after many years of being separated from her husband, who had moved there unexpectedly, presumedly to find work. She arrives three days after her husband has died though, so arrives to nothing and has no chance to say goodbye and find out why he left or didn’t bring her over much earlier (she came of her own accord). After building her reasonably-sized house in Cape Verde from scratch she discovers she has also come to a tiny, dirty hovel with misshapen doorways and a crumbling, leaking roof.
Vitalina finds little consolation from the various drinking buddies of her alcoholic husband who come to offer their condolences but do little to comfort or assist her. She does, however, develop a strange kinship with an alcoholic priest (played by Costa’s regular collaborator and muse, Ventura). He has lost his faith and congregation, and the pair attempt to face their crises together.
I must admit, Vitalina Varela is a film I’ve re-appraised after spending time with the lengthy special features and literature included with this release. It’s a difficult film to get through, moving at quite a languid pace and remaining in a bleak, dark chasm of grief for the most part. As such, I was ready to criticise the film for being a ponderous and dour affair, albeit an artistically impressive one. However, when I realised how the film came about (I really should have done my research beforehand) and spent more time hearing about its purpose, I grew to greatly appreciate what I’d seen and dismissed my feelings as being down to impatience and tiredness.
It’s an intensely personal film about grief, coming from Vitalina’s own life and experiences. The process became a method for her to attempt to properly say goodbye to her husband who she was not with when he died. In the booklet included with the disc, Daniel Kasman describes the film as being “devoted with every ounce of its being to the compassionate transmission of another’s experience.” In this way, the film is a kind of documentary, though it doesn’t resemble one at all, stylistically speaking.
And this style is quite something to behold. The film is bathed in an all-consuming darkness, reflecting how Vitalina shut herself in as well as visualising the oppressive nature of her grief. Plus it comes partly from Vitalina telling Costa she couldn’t sleep for weeks, causing her life to become nocturnal. Also, from a practical perspective, it was too noisy in the neighbourhood to shoot during the day so they had to wait until late at night to shoot without distractions.
Costa used a unique parallel light beam system, which made use of mirrors and reflectors, to achieve the striking look. It offered a lightweight and economic option that created strong, narrow beams of light rather than flooding the scene like an LED lamp would. This, added to static, carefully composed frames, gives the film a bold, fine-art look that fuses theatre with painted tableaux.
The central performances from Vitalina and Ventura are very powerful. Neither are trained actors and each channel personal experience, though Ventura is not playing a version of himself as he did in most of his films with Costa. Instead, he is playing a character based on a story Vitalina told of a priest back in Cabo Verde. Ventura knew of the story too and hated priests but seemed to relish the chance to play the character. He does an incredible job, as does Vitalina who is a mighty presence in the film. The shoot was incredibly long, with Costa going through many takes of each scene to gradually and organically develop them (he didn’t work from a fully-fledged script). In this sense, it was more of a collaborative process, which is why Vitalina shares a writing credit. It was shot with a minimal crew of 5 too, adding to the intimate nature of it all.
So, although I initially found Vitalina Varela’s deliberate pace and stark nature a little too much to bear, the film stayed with me and grew in stature, particularly after learning more about how and why it was made. On top of this, it’s undeniably striking and beautifully crafted. So, even if it’s not an easy watch, Vitalina Varela is a stunning piece of cinematic artistry that deserves your time and patience.
Vitalina Varela is out on 31st August on region-free Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Second Run. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks fantastic, with deep blacks and sharp detail. It sounds crisp and clear too (I watched with the 5.1 Master Audio option).
A few special features are included:
– Vitalina Varela (2019) presented from a director-approved HD transfer of the film.
– An introduction to the film by critic and author Chris Fujiwara.
– Pedro Costa in an exclusive and expansive filmed conversation with Maria Delgado recorded at the ICA Cinema, London, March 2020.
– Pedro Costa: Companhia – a short film about Costa’s installation exhibition at the Serralves Museum, Porto in 2018.
– Film trailers and teasers made by the director.
– 24-page booklet featuring writing on the film by Daniel Kasman.
– Original soundtrack in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio & 2.0 Stereo LPCM
Costa’s lengthy interview is wonderful and is part of the reason I re-evaluated the film as I did. It’s over 70 minutes long so replaces the need for a commentary. He goes into great detail about the process of making the film and his intentions. He also discusses a number of cinematic inspirations, providing a ‘watch-list’ for film scholars or future filmmakers.
Chris Fujiwara’s introduction is much shorter but still a valuable piece, summarising the ideas behind making the film. The installation film is a welcome addition too, offering a look at another side of Costa’s talents but still linking back to the subject matter of the film.
As always, the booklet included is also excellent, providing further analysis of the film and its makers. It contains another interview with Costa, so covers some of the same ground as the filmed conversation, but it has enough alternative material to make it worthwhile.