Combustible Celluloid
With: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida, Francisco Brito, Marina Alves Domingues, Imídio Monteiro
Written by: Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela
Directed by: Pedro Costa
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Portuguese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 124
Date: 03/27/2020

Vitalina Varela (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Halfway Houses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Believe it or not, dear readers, I have never seen a Pedro Costa movie before now. I am ashamed to admit it. To be sure, until the Criterion Collection released three of his movies on DVD in the U.S., Costa's movies were difficult to find, mostly staples of film festivals and rarely seeing regular release. But the same fate befell Costa's fellow countryman, Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, and still I managed to see ten of his films over the years. So I have no excuse. However, based on the strength of Vitalina Varela, I plan to catch up with Costa's other films, especially In Vanda's Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006), and Horse Money (2014).

Vitalina Varela is a film of spaces, places where the light can't quite seem to reach and where the occupants seem imprisoned, perhaps trapped by their pasts or their thoughts. It's a masterfully composed film, each frame a striking photograph — there are, as far as I could tell, no moving shots in the film — made up of shadows and corners. (The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody correctly compares it to the works of John Ford.) The characters rarely move, and speak even less.

It's also a story of houses. Vitalina Varela (played by a non-professional of the same name) is a 55 year-old woman who arrives in Portugal, three days after her husband's funeral. Plot details are sparse, and they are usually revealed as Vitalina speaks out loud, saying things to her husband as if he were still there. They once lived in Cape Verde and began building a house together. But he left her and went to Portugal, and the reason why is not explained. The reason it took so long for Vitalina to follow is also not explained. But she moves into his house, and frequently notices the differences between their wonderful house in Cape Verde, and the crumbling one in this village.

The other major character is a priest (Ventura), whose hands tremble with Parkinson's and who oversees a small, lopsided church filled with schoolroom chairs that sit forever empty. She comes to the church and they argue about loss. Some figures can be seem limping along, or playing cards. We briefly meet another two characters, a couple who visit Vitalina and share a meal. We learn that they are homeless, sleeping in a bus station. The only thing the woman manages to say is, "I'm cold."

It's notable that most of the film seems to take place at night, or else in deep shadows, and that the sun comes out only in the final moments. It's a profound choice, bittersweet, as we see a flashback to the Cape Verde house. The ending could be taken many ways. Perhaps Vitalina's memories will taunt her, offering bleak comparisons of how it used to be with how, bitterly, it is now. But perhaps these memories will provide a light, and a warmth, too.

Vitalina Varela is a rigorous, quiet film that moves faster in thought and emotion than it does visually, and even hardened cinephiles may have a tough time with it. But I think it's a great film, one that I will be happy to sit with and think about for some time to come. During this time of Coronavirus, it will be available for online rental at Grasshopper Film.

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