Patrick Preziosi on Pedro Costa’s ‘Vitalina Varela’ (2019)
Introduced on the peripheries of a different Pedro Costa film before becoming the central focus of her own project, the character of Vitalina Varela cut a striking figure in the fascinatingly opaque Horse Money / Cavalo Dinheiro (2014), which was otherwise dedicated to another longtime, non-professional Costa muse, Ventura. Stranded in a seemingly depopulated Lisbon, waiting for a late plane that has already caused her to miss her deceased husband’s funeral, she stalked the surroundings by night, clad in a leather jacket with a roller-suitcase in tow, commanding her few combined minutes of screentime.
Such a cross-section of characters, locales and motifs documented in real-time suggests that all the films in the Costa corpus are quasi-sequels to whatever preceded. One’s understanding of these dense cultural documents — which remain intensely personal on the part of their subjects, just toeing the line of voyeurism — may be enhanced by watching them in chronological order. But Vitalina Varela, Costa’s newest, posits that these are companion pieces, as events are jumbled and even contradict each other, while their rigorous ethos of dissecting the properties of both documentation and erasure prevails, regardless of where they fall in sequence.
Just as Vanda (of 2001’s In Vanda’s Room, originally glimpsed in 1997’s Ossos) and Ventura were given their fragmented epics that didn’t just experiment with ethnography, but utterly transcended it, Vitalina is granted the same. As is Costa’s won’t, his character’s respective films are announced by the tactile qualities of their physical presences, such as Vanda’s drug-use and chronic cough or Ventura’s towering frame and trembling hands. Vitalina Varela seems to start as a male-only funeral march, a reckoning of death that stretches through the neighbourhood of Cova de Moura (which recalls the now-demolished Fontainhas in its labyrinthine collection of grottos and alleyways), before suddenly Vitalina herself is caught in the doorway of a just-landed plane. She steps off barefoot, her feet spotted with blood; then comes the title-card.
Already a sense of unwelcomeness permeates Vitalina’s return, as airport attendants tell her to turn back, that the funeral for her husband, Joaquim, was carried out three days ago. She nevertheless continues through the neighbourhood to her husband’s home, where she then bangs her head on the doorway to his bedroom. There’s a palpable tension of reckoning with a history of estrangement on the part of Vitalina — as we learn of her husband’s neglect after he left Cape Verde for Portugal to find work — who tries her best to resituate herself in what Joaquim effectively has left behind for her. There’s an underlying tragedy that rubs up against such perseverance, such as when the ceiling caves in atop her head during a shower, or when two of the many male mourners who arrange themselves around the home are unfamiliar with the fact that Vitalina was in fact Joaquim’s wife. She only weathers so much of this whispered gossip before yelling at them to leave.
As much disconnect as there is between Vitalina and Portugal — she’d waited over 25 years for Joaquim to send for her — Costa’s expected formal tics imbue the film with a burnished tone that contributes to an almost alien subjectivity. The director’s preferred colour scheme of impossibly deep blacks cut through with startling bursts of light is renewed here, and such continued use renders the 4:3 aspect ratio even more compact. This suggests a new kind of intimacy with the characters who are illuminated beyond the shadows, either already confined or omitted by the edges of the screen. Thus, every unobscured face feels like an entire event; such an artistic paring down makes the film all the more rich to behold.
Vitalina Varela also feels markedly more linear than Horse Money, whose detours were indiscernibly strewn together as a collection of memories, hallucinations, or even fantasy. The reminiscences and thoughts of Vitalina only present themselves visually twice, as quiet and fleeting interludes of her shared life with Joaquim on Cape Verde. Otherwise, she’ll look as if she’s addressing someone or something just beyond the camera, lamenting the home her husband built (“this house of yours is a poorly done job”), or, with a gutting plainspokeness, acknowledge the gulf that’d opened itself between the two: “…and you died, and you never came,” she says of his once-promised return. These aren’t necessarily monologues, but sudden verbalisations of interiority, similar to the flights of surrealism that seemed to manifest themselves from within Ventura.
The kind of patience that Costa works with — especially considering the time he allows for Vitalina and sometimes Ventura to tell their stories in an uninhibited manner — makes it hard to continue to lob the “poverty porn” accusation at him. His films remain as resonant as they do for their external apoliticism (they are fashioned neither as fetishised portraits nor as odysseys of striving to make a life past the slums), but still retain a potent thread of social consciousness in just their mere act of portrayal. So much of Vitalina Varela concerns moments of earthbound community, dedicated to drinking, churchgoing, and eating; “I had forgotten the taste of home cooking,” says the homeless Ntonio, while him and his wife share dinner with Vitalina.
So as Costa continues to coax out mythological beauty from the process of documentation, Vitalina’s lateness to her husband’s funeral is then lent a meta-cinematic significance, speaking to the rapturous sadness of the Costa project as a whole: that a whole culture will disappear before we are even given proper time to mourn it. The collective desire amongst the characters for simple attributes of a less destitute life makes the proceedings all the more overpowering, especially in Vitalina’s flashbacks to Cape Verde. The island isn’t presented as some utopia, but a realisation of such fundamental wishes: some chickens, a bed, a romantic partner, and a sturdy place to call home.
Vitalina Varela screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.