Vitalina Varela (2019)

This film was at the 2019 London Film Festival, where a lot of people I know and like had already seen it and fallen in love. At festivals I try to prioritise films I don’t expect to come back to cinemas, but that also sometimes means a bit of a wait, and 2020 in general will probably mean I don’t see some classics for a year or two yet. Pedro Costa’s got its cinema release while I was on holiday, and by the time I got back, we were into lockdown, so I belatedly caught up with on Mubi. Home viewng doesn’t really seem the ideal way to experience Costa’s frequently very darkly-lit pieces, but it turns out the power was still very evident, making this easily one of my favourites.


For whatever reason, I found it difficult to get into Horse Money, Pedro Costa’s last film in 2014, but I think part of it is just down to how tired you are when you watch them (and I was very tired), because they have a curiously oneiric/soporific quality, falling somewhere in between wakefulness and lucid dreaming (I’m reminded a little of the tone of Lucrecia Martel’s films also, although stylistically they are quite different). The frame in any given shot within a Costa movie is frequently dominated by heavy shadows, with the encroaching darkness that looms from the edges of the frame suggesting both a lingering mood and the difficulty characters have in moving forward. This film starts with a death, telegraphed through glimpsed items, characters posed in mourning, a bloodied pillow and sheets suggestive of trauma, and it’s into this that the title character arrives, the wife of the recently deceased (picking up on a story told in the earlier film). The darkness of the frames is matched to the decrepitude of the dwelling places, mud and dirt, a broken roof, a sense of society in collapse — this is Portugal, though the characters all come from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, and colonialism seems to be an unspoken backdrop to the drama. It’s slow cinema, of course, reminding me of similar imagery (albeit more waterlogged) in Tsai Ming-liang’s films, but if you’re attuned to it — and I felt more so here than the last time I watched a Costa film — it feels rewarding too.

Vitalina Varela film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Vitalina Varela, Ventura; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

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