I conducted the following interview with Pedro Costa for Cine-File Chicago. His latest film, VITALINA VARELA, screens three times at the Chicago International Film Festival: Monday, October 21 at 6pm, Tuesday, October 22 at 5:45pm and Friday, October 25 at 2:45pm.
Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. His latest, VITALINA VARELA, is, perhaps surprisingly, his first film to win the top award at a major film festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has the potential to bring his work to a wider audience than ever before. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (Isaach De Bankole and Edith Scob appear in 1994’s CASA DE LAVA) to casting non-professionals to portray some version of themselves (notably Cape Verdean immigrants living in working-class neighborhoods in Lisbon — including Fontainhas, the systematic destruction of which was captured in the director’s 2000 masterpiece IN VANDA’S ROOM). Along the way there have been side trips into documentary filmmaking proper (WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? and CHANGE NOTHING both document the working lives of artists Costa admires: filmmaking team Straub/Huillet and chanteuse/actress Jeanne Balibar, respectively).
VITALINA VARELA, however, feels like something of an apotheosis for Costa — his work in its purest form. Taking its title from the protagonist (and the actress who plays her), VITALINA VARELA is the darkest and most beautiful film he has yet made. No one knows how to light and frame images like Costa; where most directors film daytime interiors by framing actors against windows, and thus shooting into the light, Costa nearly always frames his subjects against walls in dark, cave-like interiors, allowing them to be illuminated only by the light entering from windows on the room’s opposite side. Of course, the resulting painterly images would be nothing if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t focused on compelling subjects. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the year’s most remarkable screen presence. I conducted the following interview with Costa about the film via e-mail.
MGS: VITALINA VARELA is the darkest movie you’ve made. Almost every shot is either a nighttime exterior or a daytime interior that’s shot in a dark location. Can you speak about why you’ve moved increasingly in this direction?
PC: Vitalina had spent all her life under a grueling sun, working the land in the mountains of the Island of Santiago, Cape Verde. She married her first love, Joaquim, a boy from the same village, of Figueira das Naus. Like most Cape Verdean young men, Joaquim left his country, in 1977, with the promise of work as a bricklayer. Like all Cape Verdean girls, Vitalina remained, waiting and longing for a happy life. With his first money saved, Joaquim buys a brick and plate shack in the neighborhood of Cova da Moura, in the suburbs of Lisbon. He writes one or two letters to Vitalina, and calls her promising a plane ticket to come join him in Portugal. In 35 years, Joaquim will only return to Cape Verde twice. During his first stay, Joaquim and Vitalina begin building a house near the chapel of their home village. During his second, as soon as he arrives, he claims he must see a cousin in the north and takes the first plane back to Lisbon. This was the last time Vitalina saw him. Every other night he’s seen wandering and stumbling in the dark alleyways of Cova da Moura. Rumor has it that he stabbed a fellow mason in a fight over some shady business. He misses work, his colleagues lose his trail, they knock on his door, but he never answers. He dies on June 23rd, 2013 and is buried the on 27th. Vitalina arrives in Portugal 3 days later. Nobody knows her in the neighborhood, no one comforts her, everyone turns a suspicious eye. These are the facts. And this is where the film begins. Vitalina spends countless days and nights locked in Joaquim’s shack. She barely survives the pain and the nightmares.
MGS: Vitalina expresses a lot of different emotions in the film — grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger. What did she bring to the writing process and how did you shape that? I’m especially curious about some of the more poetic things she says – like when she criticizes her husband for chasing street women “like a lamb that escaped the barn.”
PC: I’m lucky to have the best scriptwriters. Of course, I keep an order to all things, I make my own suggestions, sometimes I add detail, I associate and crisscross a bit, but mainly, my job is to concentrate, to get it tighter and tighter. The film began to take shape as I started visiting Vitalina in the neighbourhood of Cova da Moura and talking with her every day. We had long talks. When I realized the amount of pain and grief that Vitalina was enduring, I thought that the film would be impossible. I told her it might not work. She kept saying: “If there’s love, things will work out!” I kept telling her: “But your words will be in the film, they will be the film!” She kept saying: “You must!’ We talked every day: she told me about herself and her runaway husband Joaquim, about her peasant life in Cape Verde and her immigrant life in Lisbon… In the beginning was the word, and the word was Vitalina.
MGS: I understand the priest Ventura plays is based on a real person but in the chapel scenes it was impossible for me not to think about THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. Was Bresson an influence in your depiction of a lonely priest who has lost his flock?
PC: “What a wonder that one can give what one doesn’t possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.” It’s impossible not to think of Bresson, it’s unforgettable. Like the young priest of Ambricourt, Ventura is paying all the debts and bills of his immigrant parishioners with his shaky, empty hands. Like him, Ventura is a weak, exhausted, drunken, downcast priest. But there’s also something in him of the healthy, strong preacher of STARS IN MY CROWN. I feel that Ventura has also a sparkle of the humor and wit that belong to that miracle man played by Joel McCrea.
MGS: When I interviewed you about HORSE MONEY, you described the closing shots of Ventura looking at knives in a display window as his character “coming out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He’s ready for action and he needs a weapon.” Can one say the same thing about Vitalina at the end of this film?
PC: We all know that people like Vitalina or Ventura or Vanda are condemned. When their boat leaves the harbour, the minute their plane takes off the ground, they are doomed. Since the day they are born. And maybe they’ve been condemned long before that. Just plain guilty. I can’t give much to my Cape Verdean friends. I can’t give them loads of money, I can’t give them a bright future, I can’t give them hope. But maybe there’s everything to gain from our work in cinema. Cinema can set the record straight and, somehow, those who have been wronged will be avenged. A sweet miracle, indeed. Ventura quotes Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Our country is in heaven”. And he adds: “But fear can also enter heaven”.