Baroque Faith

Nick Pinkerton on Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019)

Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 124 minutes. Ventura and Vitalina Varela.

THE FIRST IMAGE in Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela is an empty street at night, from which a few headstones marking a cemetery are visible. It’s a grisaille, so denuded of color that you process the image as monochrome, and as such it’s a little disconcerting when a cortege passes through and a few hints of pigment—skin, a brown knit cap—become visible among the mourners, all black, all middle-aged or older, some walking with difficulty.

I thought I recognized the street, hemmed in by high walls of concrete, though I’ve never been to Portugal. I thought, perhaps, it was one of those corridor-like passages that Costa’s returning subject, Ventura, is seen wandering through in his underwear in the director’s previous film, Horse Money (2014), to which Costa has described Vitalina Varela as a kind of companion piece—a female-centered story of exile to follow a male-centered one. Costa’s recent movies deepen a familiarity sustained across more than thirty years, during which time he has returned to dramatize the lives of people in straitened circumstances, recording the textures of their modest, careful lives in rich and sensuous detail. Since 1997’s Ossos, his films have taken place amid the Cape Verdean diaspora communities in Portugal, each following in what seems like an organic progression from the last, his actors playing versions of themselves, gradually creating a repertory troupe and community that includes Vanda Duarte, Ventura, and now Vitalina Varela.

The lead of Vitalina Varela is played by a Cape Verdean woman of the same name whose biographical details mirror exactly those of the film’s Vitalina. In Horse Money, she tells her story, of marrying young back home, of being left behind and seemingly forgotten by a husband who sought work and a better life in Lisbon, and of arriving a few days too late for his funeral—the result of some sorrowful, solitary meeting of sickness and suicide. In Vitalina Varela, her journey—and its immediate precedent, the sorting of the dead man’s things—is reenacted, shot in a series of fixed-camera tableaux united by a sense of intense quietude and solemn beauty.

Describing the sequence of Vitalina’s arrival in Lisbon may give some sense of Costa’s approach: There is a long shot of the tail of a passenger jet on a runway, and a female figure silhouetted by a strong backlight in the rear exit, waiting as the airstair taxis forward. A quintet of cleaning women crosses the tarmac, walking toward the camera. Two subsequent shots show a woman’s legs and bare feet descending the diamond-plate stairs, her calves streaked with fluid, leaving behind a trail of damp. The passenger meets the cleaning ladies, one of whom identifies her as our Vitalina, and offers condolences in a whisper that somehow competes with the noise of the idling jet engine, and a questionable greeting: “Here in Portugal there is nothing for you.”

Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 124 minutes. Vitalina Varela.

Evident here are several signature elements of Costa’s style. He doesn’t repeat setups. His framings—often lingered in longer than the fairly brisk clip of this sequence suggests—have a staunch and definitive quality, one shared with his acknowledged lodestars, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (subjects of his 2001 documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?), as well as John Ford, whose approach in later years very often consisted of simply finding the right place to plunk his camera. (Think James Stewart and Richard Widmark bullshitting on the riverbank in 1961’s Two Rode Together, the genesis of so-called slow cinema.) Like Ford, Costa tends toward casually iconographic imagery: Vitalina’s arrival befits a hero’s, a twenty-first-century version of the opening with a train pulling into a station, which Ford loved. The cleaners who flank the spokeswoman stand stock-still during her commiseration with and warning to Vitalina, one with a mop and bucket in a pose that suggests Millet’s Hay Trusser. Finally, there is the cultivation of mystery. The trail of droplets on the airstair might easily be explained as the result of a no-longer-young woman’s weak bladder—in fact, in Horse Money, Vitalina discusses being too nervous to use the bathroom on her flight—but it never is verbally explained, and so it becomes something more, an almost mystical image of grief beyond grief, a full-body lachrymosity.

Having reached the country she’s been warned away from, Vitalina settles into the home of her dead husband. The film goes about observing her listless everyday as well as that of the community she has joined—Vitalina Varela was largely shot in the African neighborhood of Cova da Moura in Lisbon’s suburbs and in the brick-and-plate shanties of the place, including Vitalina’s actual home. The visitors she receives, strangers mostly, describe a man she barely knew when he was alive. A homeless couple, Ntoni and Marina (Manuel Tavares Almeida and Maria Alves Domingues), drop by for a home-cooked meal, and Ntoni recalls the charity shown to him by the dead Joaquim, who planned to his dying day to fix up the house that Vitalina has arrived to find in disrepair. Vitalina, who saw so little of this charity, remains ambivalent.

Much of what composes the film might be described as solitary rituals, either domestic ones—cooking, eating, gardening—or those of faith. Vitalina keeps the candles lit on an altar in memory of Joaquim, whom she addresses in his absence, alternately to reproach him and to relive their scant time together, the days they spent building a home in Cape Verde which he would never occupy. Comparing it to that construction job, the widow disparages his slapdash work in Cova da Moura, and not without reason, for this new house seems almost actively hostile toward her: She bumps her head on the narrow door frames and, while taking a shower, is hit by a piece of plaster falling from the ceiling.

Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 124 minutes. Ventura.

The widow is not alone in talking to the shadows. The lanky Ventura is here, again, now playing a Catholic priest ministering to a disappeared congregation—the interior of his empty church was built in a makeshift studio at an abandoned cinema in Savacém—and hounded by his own ghosts and what appears to be a crisis of faith or a crisis of health, or some combination of the two. The persistent tremor he displayed in Horse Money has only become exacerbated, and he often appears face-down on the ground, perhaps in supplication, perhaps in collapse. Vitalina’s and Ventura’s trajectories seem to circle one another before intersecting, which they do in more ways than one. Her abandonment connects to the melancholy at the heart of Christian belief, the deferral of a Second Coming; her sense of exile to his own exhortation: “Our country is in heaven.”   

Many scenes in this shadow-drenched film seem as if they were inspired by nothing so much as the Baroque. Rather than a dramatic tenebrist spotlight, however, Costa works with the small patches of illumination that find their way through porthole-like windows, and sometimes with less; there are certain moments when we can see little more of Vitalina in darkness than her upturned eyes. Vitalina Varela takes place largely indoors and at night, or what seems like night for all the daylight that enters the catacomb-like recesses of the shantytown—at one point, Vitalina teasingly opens her front door to let the sunshine fall briefly on her face, only to then turn and walk away. The sun, as well as raucous life, has left this world—the din of city sounds is often faintly audible in the background, but we never see the squealing children or the barking dogs it implies.

With Leonardo Simões as his cinematographer, Costa works in close quarters and low light, using an Arriflex camera and short lenses that render a burnished deep-focus image of remarkable clarity and lucidity, two words that describe Vitalina Varela as a whole. Movement by performers within the frame is slow and deliberate, attuned to the rhythms of older subjects whose creaky joints have absorbed the attrition of a lifetime of work, and who now make no gesture that will waste energy. In this stillness, the wavering play of light becomes a dynamic element, steering attention to the moisture gathered in Vitalina’s eyes, or to the way a moving figure off-screen changes the fall of light in the room.

The handful of plein air daytime shots that do occur, late in the film, brings to the movie a feeling of sudden expanse, a draft of bright cleanliness after so much claustrophobic dark. We are shown again a cemetery, another burial, under an overcast Portuguese sky, and the construction of a house under a beautiful blue Cape Verdean one. It’s presumably the house built by Vitalina and Joaquim, never to cohabit—a house that will never be a home. And the idea of home is at the center of Costa’s film: the home you want and the one you settle for, how the one you settle for defines and then cramps the boundaries of your life, and the place you occupy when your life is at an end.

Vitalina Varela opens at Film at Lincoln Center in New York on February 21.