Saturday, April 01, 2023

Vitalina Varela


Directed by Pedro Costa and written by Costa and Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela is the story of a Cape Verdean woman who travels to Lisbon to meet her husband after having not seen him in 40 years only to learn that he had died three days earlier as she goes to the Fontainhas slums to discover his life in the slum. The film is a docu-fiction drama starring the titular character played by its co-writer as she deals with loss but also a life she never knew as she tries to understand what her husband had done. Also starring Ventura. Vitalina Varela is an entrancing and eerie film from Pedro Costa.

The film follows the titular character who arrives in Lisbon to see her estranged husband whom she hadn’t seen in a long time only to learn that he had died three days earlier. It is film with a minimalist premise as it follows this woman who tries to understand the life her husband had in the remaining Fontainhas slum in Lisbon as well as cope with this loss of a man she thought she knew. The film’s screenplay is largely loose as it doesn’t have a traditional structure in favor of something that feels improvisational as well as reflective as it plays into the titular character’s plight where she goes through these claustrophobic slums and later the woods to figure out what is going on. Even as she meets a priest (Ventura) who harbors some resentment towards her where he constantly defends her husband despite the fact that he did a lot of terrible things.

Pedro Costa’s direction is told in an extremely minimalist style in which is presented in its 1:33:1 aspect ratio with no camera movements similar to the static-camera shooting style of Yasujiro Ozu. While there are some wide shots prevalent in the film to establish some of the locations, Costa emphasizes on close-ups and medium shots to play into some of the conversations as well as Vitalina’s encounter with her surroundings including her late husband’s home. Shot on digital, Costa shoots the film largely on dark settings with very few scenes shot in daylight exterior settings to maintain a mood that is eerie as it play into this idea of ghosts haunting Vitalina. The fact that it is shot on location at the remnants of the Fontainhas slums in Lisbon adds to the realist feel of the film though the emphasize on long shots and lack of camera movements does make the film uneasy to watch at times as well as be slow in its pacing. Still, Costa maintains this minimalist approach to play into this woman’s plight as there are monologues where she talks to her ghost husband as if he is there. Overall, Costa crafts a riveting yet chilling film about a woman dealing with the death of her estranged husband upon her arrival to Lisbon.

Cinematographer Leonardo Simoes does incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on natural and available lighting to maintain this intoxicating yet eerie look of the film as it is shot largely in the dark as it is a highlight of the film. Editors Vitor Carvalho and Joao Dias do excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward to play into the film’s pacing as well its emphasis to let shots linger for more than a minute. Set designer Andre Salgueiro Martins does nice work with the look of some of the homes in the slums in its interiors as well as a few exterior bits. The visual effects work of Vitor Carvalho and Irma Lucia is terrific for its minimal elements as it mainly serves as set dressing. Sound designer Hugo Leitao does amazing work with the sound to play into the atmosphere of the locations in great detail with a lot of emphasis on the natural elements of sound including how music is heard from afar as the only music piece heard is a score piece from Costa’s other films that is played briefly in the film’s final credits.

The film’s wonderful cast largely feature non-professional actors as it mainly feature people living in the slums with Ventura being a standout as a priest who bears some resentment towards the titular character yet understands her anger towards her estranged husband while he is dealing with Parkinson’s. The performance of Vitalina Varela as herself is phenomenal as she portrays the anguish and confusion of a woman traveling from Cape Verde to Lisbon to comprehend not just the death of her husband but why he left her in a world that barely has anything.

Vitalina Varela is an incredible film from Pedro Costa that features a chilling leading performance from its titular character playing herself. Along with its realist and minimalist presentation, gorgeous digital photography, and its exploration of loss and resentment in a world that many ignore. It is a film that isn’t easy to watch due to its slow-pacing and lack of a strong plot but it is still intriguing to showcase a woman coping with the loss of a man she thought she really knew. In the end, Vitalina Varela is a phenomenal film from Pedro Costa.

Pedro Costa Films: (O Sangue) – (Casa de lava) – Ossos - No Quatro da Vanda - (Ou git votre sourire enfoui?) – Colossal Youth - (Ne change rien) – (Cavalo dinheiro)

© thevoid99 2023


ruth said...

I haven't heard of this one but you got me intrigued! I'm always amazed when filmmakers cast non-professional actors and still managed to get great performances out of them!

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It was on MUBI but not anymore so I watched it before it left the service on the event that I might not see it for another year or 2. It isn't an easy film to watch but still rewarding as I have a few more films of Pedro Costa on MUBI that I plan to watch just to get some of his work out of the way having seen his trilogy of films last December.