Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela picks up where Horse Money left off: immersed in a realm of suppressed memory and collective trauma. The film’s first image, of an alleyway lined by looming stone walls, cross-shaped gravestones dotting the upper right wall as a funeral procession silently emerges from the background shadows, renders a real street as a kind of military trench. The shot looks like something out of a post-World War I silent film, epitomizing Costa’s uncanny ability to balance realism and stylization.
The oneiric atmosphere of the film’s opening minutes is shattered, though, by the deafening roar of a jet engine heralding the arrival of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) from Cape Verde. Costa frames her disembarkment as a series of contrasting images, such as her bare, calloused feet walking down the metal steps of the commercial airliner. Vitalina’s greeting party, such as it is, consists of several Cape Verdean immigrants who work custodial jobs at the Lisbon airport. The women, arranged artfully around Vitalina and offering stern warnings that she should return to Cape Verde rather than suffer the indignities of life in Portugal, bring to mind the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the way they ominously portend doom.
The reasons for their grim tidings are apparent enough to Vitalina even before she leaves the tarmac. Having long dreamed of moving to Portugal after her husband, Joaquim, left Cape Verde for Lisbon decades ago to establish himself there before sending for her, Vitalina arrives now only for his funeral. Joaquim’s squalid home makes clear that he never could have supported Vitalina in Portugal, and she wonders aloud why he chose to live in such conditions instead of returning home. Vitalina, like everyone else in Costa’s films, speaks in a declamatory fashion that brings to mind the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But Vitalina’s long reflections on her thwarted dreams and her husband’s broken promises and lack of fidelity, drawn from some of the real Varela’s experiences, are shot through with tremors of suppressed rage and anguish that are rare across Costa’s calculatingly stoic filmography. The director has gotten some incredible performances from non-professionals over the years, but the inner pain and disgust that plays across Varela’s hardened features may be the most viscerally compelling acting to ever grace one of his productions.
It’s been two decades now since Costa refined his filmmaking approach by utilizing digital cameras, minimal on-location crew, and manipulations of available light with mirrors, and he continues to compose some of the most singular images in modern cinema. As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões wish to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of the immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters.
Yet Vitalina Varela is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Joaquim looms over it like a spirit with unfinished business, to the point that Vitalina’s extended, accusatory monologues about their relationship sound like direct addresses to his loitering soul just waiting off-camera. As Vitalina’s caustic assessments of her husband soften with nostalgic reflection and empathy for his life in Lisbon, she’s left feeling unmoored, loosed even from the tether of her anger.
For all the pain that reverberates through it, Vitalina Varela marks the first time in ages where a Costa film communicates more hope than despair. Networks of neighbors and friends have played a key role in all of his films since he began to document the residents of Lisbon’s now-razed Fontainhas shantytown, but arguably the presence of community has never before been felt so strongly in Costa’s work. When men arrive at Joaqium’s home to offer condolences to Vitalina, social rituals kick into gear and begin to bond them. She cooks for the men, one of whom tenderly confesses that he had forgotten what home cooking tasted like. Others talk to the woman about all they did to care for her husband in his failing health, with one neighbor noting insistently, “We also know how to help our fellow man.”
Vitalina may feel lost in Portugal, but she’s quickly accepted by the members of the immigrant community living in Fontainhas. Her presence even sparks life in some of the slum’s residents who’ve hardened emotionally, namely Costa mainstay Ventura, who here acts as the local priest of a long-empty congregation. Offering the last rites to Joaqium, the priest then performs mass for Vitalina and is momentarily rejuvenated by his faith. And the film’s coda, in which Costa returns to Cape Verde for the first time since Casa de Lava, marks the first indication in more than a decade that Costa might be leaving behind the literal and figurative darkness that has defined his filmmaking for 20 years. At last, he appears to be more interested in how people get on with life than how they keep the company of ghosts.