‘Vitalina Varela’ Film Review: Pedro Costa Summons a Dark Night of Grief

Dave White

A funeral procession emerges from the pitch-black center of a walled cemetery outside of Lisbon. Mourners move past the camera, but no one speaks of the deceased or of anything else. For the first 10 minutes of Pedro Costa’s latest, “Vitalina Varela,” wordless sound design and an immersive darkness settle in, the storytelling restricted to the aftermath of sickness and an unknown man’s last days.

Costa’s films often star first-time or other nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves, with storylines reflecting their real lives, elements of fiction and documentary forming a seamless whole; as such Vitalina Varela plays “herself.” And as the film opens, and Vitalina arrives, she’s three days too late. The funeral was for Joaquim, the husband who abandoned Vitalina years earlier, and this three-day passage amounts to an anti-resurrection. Here, the dead stay dead.

Vitalina positions herself in the shadowy, crumbling hovel where Joaquim lived and died, and whispers her true story via sporadic monologues to, if not his ghost, then to his lingering atmospheric presence. Decades earlier, they were together in Cape Verde, built a home there side by side, until the day he fled for Portugal and a dissolute life, one spent “chasing street women,” one that also included an unspecified amount of time in prison.

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Meanwhile, Vitalina waited for a reunion that never came. “You turned your face to death,” she scolds the darkness, often fixing her stern gaze on a makeshift altar of candles and photographs, “We could have stayed in Cape Verde… here there is only bitterness, here we are nothing.”

Breaking the long, patient silences between Vitalina’s memories, Joaquim’s fellow impoverished Cape Verdeans wander into the frame, some muttering their own reminiscences. The chorus of mourners echo narrative themes of displacement, loneliness, and the brutal legacy of their immigrant status and treatment by the ruling Portuguese, all motifs found in Costa’s earlier films “In Vanda’s Room,” “Colossal Youth,” and especially 2014’s “Horse Money,” where an abbreviated version of Vitalina’s story first appeared.

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Costa and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Leonardo Simões, physically immerse these characters in near total darkness — including a show-stopping moment in which Vitalina tries to repair the roof of Jaoquim’s destroyed home during a storm in the middle of the night — allowing only the most indirect light elements into the frame. The result is a staggeringly beautiful and simultaneously stricken chiaroscuro, appropriating the Divine light of classical painting for the purposes of spiritual disaffection.

In keeping with this, an actor named Ventura — a member of Costa’s company of players and star of “Colossal Youth” and “Horse Money” — arrives playing a physically disabled priest. Ventura performs Mass in an empty, decaying chapel, and he’s burdened with the need to tend to as many of his fellow Cape Verdeans as possible by any means he can summon. He’s the only person to have an extended conversation with Vitalina, and to further illuminate the misery of colonization, even after death, he informs her that in order to speak to Joaquim’s spirit, she’ll have to do so in Portuguese.

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By centering the real-life experiences of his actors, Costa’s conscientious cinema lives in a fully humane space. Material deprivation and unrelenting night provide a blackened backdrop for quiet intimacy and dignity. Costa rejects voyeurism and condescension in favor of a form of storytelling solidarity with his actors, one where there’s no buffer of irony, no distancing effects. There may be nothing to soften his characters’ pain, but there’s still great evidence of mutual care.

In the final moments of director Béla Tarr’s last film, “The Turin Horse,” the sun extinguishes itself, a reversal of the biblical creation story, and the film’s nearly silent characters wait out their lives in a suffocating void. Here, the existential stakes are the same, but Vitalina, Ventura, and the other unnamed mourners engage with the seemingly endless night by speaking their grief directly into it, looking to dig meaning out of their mutually inherited personal and historical trauma.

As they do so, Costa allows for an ambiguous physical daylight to return — whether it’s from a memory of better days or the signal of a future built on renewed comradeship is open to interpretation — but it brings a whisper of hope to the enveloping grief.

“Vitalina Varela” will stream on GrasshopperFilms.com beginning Friday, March 27.

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