Pedro Costa | 2hr 4min
By the time Vitalina Varela’s plane touches down in Lisbon to meet her estranged, terminally ill husband, Joaquim, after years of separation, an apocalyptic decay has set over his dark, decrepit village. To make matters worse, she arrives three days too late – his passing has left a communal grief in its wake that she simply does not feel in the same, uncomplicated way. She sits alone in his crumbling house, speaking to his spirit with bitterness and melancholy in her voice, not so much mourning his death as the loss of the life she once had with him back in Cape Verde, and which he so cruelly ran from before they could even finish building their home together.
Around her, Pedro Costa glacially slips through cinematic paintings of a monochrome world, dimly illuminating its exposed brick, concrete, and rusted steel through harsh spotlights, and crafting a weathered production design that bears a tangibly rough texture. Though the frames of smothering shadows he shapes around her are heavily evocative of Gordon Willis’ darkness-infused cinematography, the heavy vignette effects even more clearly call to mind similar techniques Krzysztof Kieslowski used to powerful effect in A Short Film About Killing.
Costa’s rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience. We stand in graffitied alleyways, overgrown gardens, and dilapidated churches, often waiting for characters to enter and inject the scenery with some dynamic life, though often finding instead that their appearances are limited to whispered soliloquys and stiff passages of dialogue. Much like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Costa disconnects his actors entirely from each other, leaving long pauses between each line and staggering their bodies in disjointed formations through a crisp depth of field, reaching far back into his ramshackle sets.
From the sides of his compositions however, Vitalina Varela squeezes these cramped environments inwards, so much so that it is difficult at times to discern exteriors from interiors. Barred windows frequently become oppressive frames through which we observe Vitalina wandering Lisbon’s rundown infrastructure, trapped by the life her husband has left behind, though occasionally Costa will angle his camera up to capture a cloudy, night sky, tinged with a murky green that faintly colours the murky, earthy tones below.
The cumulative effect of such hypnotic austerity throughout the film is quietly overwhelming, as Costa works through his eerie, distant sound design and expressionistic mise-en-scène to lull us into the same state of mournful despondency that this forlorn woman is suffering. Named after the actress herself upon whom this story is based, Vitalina Varela encourages us to make little distinction between character and performer, thus becoming a strange sort of docudrama which rejects realism and seeks a profound connection to the widow in her loneliest moments. Though visitors drop by to offer their condolences, there is little solace to be found in any of them, as she serves them food and carries out the duties of a loyal wife as if her husband were still alive. She may burn a candle on a small shrine dedicated to his memory, but she holds no personal connection towards this house or the legacy of neglect it imprisons her in.
In blinding contrast, Costa briefly flashes back a couple of times to the days of the couple’s youth in Cape Verde, where the fruits of their love and collaboration emerge in rare glimpses of daylight. Lighting thus becomes a crucial formal marker of Vitalina’s own journey in this film, representing her hopeful past and later her future as well, as she strives to find resolution in her husband’s passing. In the meantime though, she is honest about the distance she feels from the man who departed this world without explanation for his abandonment, infidelity, and debauchery.
“There is nothing left of that love, of that clarity. I do not trust you in life nor in death.”
The closest thing to a companion that Vitalina finds in this place is its local priest, played by Costa’s regular collaborator, Ventura. This old, frail man has tremors in one hand and can barely carry his own weight without collapsing, but he holds a majestic screen presence with his tall, withering stature nonetheless, lamenting the state of his empty, dusty church. “There is nothing sadder than a priest in this place,” he moans, and yet as Vitalina reveals, he is not some bystander in a moral wasteland. She remembers him from his days in Cape Verde where he refused the baptism of local believers seeking salvation, only to see them all die in a bus crash immediately afterwards. Together, both Vitalina and the priest “share the mourning,” as he puts it. “You lost your husband. I lost my faith in this darkness.”
As Costa segues into his final scenes though, an elegiac cleansing of sorts begins to take form. A biblical storm bursts forth from the overcast skies, pelting down on grimy, corrugated iron roofs, and the priest turns his head upwards, sombrely quoting Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
“Our country is in heaven…”
And yet he has his own addendum for this bible passage as well.
“…But fear can also enter heaven.”
The spiritual underpinnings of Costa’s work here are elusive and mysterious, and yet there is great catharsis to be found in the final scenes of daylight, as the priest conducts Joaquim’s funeral one more time for Vitalina alone. “There will be no more death, nor mourning, nor pain,” he preaches, and we would like to believe that there is indeed power in what he says beyond mere self-assurance of a bright future. If we are to find hope here at all though, perhaps it is in the closing flashback of Vitalina and Joaquim’s half-constructed house in Cape Verde, offering far greater comfort than the Portuguese shack they will be both inevitably reside in. Costa does not promise his viewers an easy experience peeling back the layers of Vitalina Varela’s solemn visual poetry, and yet the heavy grief that bleeds out into his world of neglected gardens, streets, and sewers is rendered with an uncomfortable sincerity, and starkly illuminated with abstract, melancholic sensitivities.
Vitalina Varela is not currently available to stream in Australia.