I wrote the following review of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list. It is a revised/improved version of the introduction I wrote to the interview I conducted with Pedro for Cine-File last fall:
Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA (Portuguese)
Available to rent via the Gene Siskel Film Center here.
Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. It was therefore surprising that it wasn’t until last year that one of his films, VITALINA VARELA, won the top award at a major festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has thankfully upped the great Portuguese director’s profile even further. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (French movie stars 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 literally the darkest and, arguably, 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 the walls of 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 not count for much if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t also focused on a compelling subject. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after having spent decades apart, but tragically arriving just three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in Costa’s previous film, 2014’s HORSE MONEY. The lead in that movie, Ventura, returns here in a supporting role as the priest of a ramshackle church whose congregation has long abandoned him – a powerful incarnation that, as Costa has acknowledged, evokes performances from cinema’s history as disparate as Claude Laydu in THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and Joel McCrea in STARS IN MY CROWN. But this show ultimately belongs to Vitalina Varela, whose striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her one of the most remarkable screen presences of any movie in recent years. Watching this beautiful and resilient woman contend with a crumbling ceiling while taking a shower or, in a ravishing sequence worthy of John Ford, repairing her roof in a windstorm, constituted an authentic religious experience for this viewer. (2019, 124 min) MGS
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