Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s latest film “Vitalina Varela” is an austerely reticent but strikingly haunting piece of work. I must confess that I checked some other reviews after watching it because I was not so sure about what it was about and how it was about, and I must also admit that I am still not as enthusiastic about it as some other critics, but this is one of more curious arthouse movies I saw during this year.
The movie is mainly set in some poor neighborhood of Lisbon where many immigrant workers from Cape Verde (It is an African island country in the Central Atlantic Ocean, by the way) reside, and its opening scene movie gradually establishes its pensive mood and slow narrative pacing. As the camera calmly watches a long alley sandwiched between two grey concrete walls, a bunch of immigrant workers trudge to us one by one, and then the movie pays some attention to an old dude who seems to have some physical problem while trying to stand up.
Anyway, we later come to learn that these immigrant workers are just coming back from the burial of one of their colleagues, who recently died due to some acute health problem. We see a small shabby place where he has resided alone for years, and the sense of despair and desperation remains palpable although he is gone now. We also see those narrow and stuffy alleys of the neighborhood, and their stark ambience, which is further accentuated by the high contrast between lights and shadows on the screen, makes this area look like somewhere between purgatory and inferno.
The main viewpoint of the movie belongs to that dead man’s wife Vitalina Varela (Vitalina Varela), who arrives at the airport in Lisbon right after the opening part of the movie. After she walks barefoot down from an airplane from Cape Verde, she meets a group of female employees working in the airport, and they console her while emphasizing that there is really nothing left for her here in Lisbon, but she does not change her mind at all on what she is already determined to do. In addition to properly mourning for the husband to which she has not been particularly close, she is going to settle in that shabby residence of her husband although nothing is certain for her yet.
After Vitalina arrives at her husband’s residence, she prepares to meet a number of her husband’s colleagues and friends, who show some condolence to her as expected but do not have many things to tell her. As simply occupying the space of her husband’s residence for a while, they often feel like wraiths paralyzed in eternal damnation, and Vitalina does not say anything kind to them while mired in her growing grief.
Vitalina sometimes talks to herself while she is alone by herself, and we come to gather her and her dead husband’s long history of separation and estrangement. When they built their house in Cape Verde many years ago, they were probably happy together, but they have become quite distant to each other since he left for Lisbon for earning more money, and Vitalina cannot help but feel bitter as often being reminded of how her dead husband has been like a total stranger to her during all these days. Although some of his friends and colleagues tell her about her dead husband bit by bit, she never feels like knowing her dead husband at all, and that fuels her grief more just like his shabby residence, which has been in the dire need of repair.
In the meantime, Vitalina meets the aforementioned old man, who turns out to be the local priest of his neighborhood. Still looking physically unstable and fragile, the priest does not try that much to console Vitalina because, well, he has been sinking in despair and exhaustion just like many others in the neighborhood. His small church looks more like an abandoned place to be demolished sooner or later, and there is a small pitiful moment when he struggles to make a summon on life and death in front of Vitalina, who is incidentally the only person present in his church except him.
Constantly refusing any possibility of going down along a conventional narrative, the movie keeps focusing on whatever is quietly churning behind Vitalina’s reticent appearance, and cinematographer Leonardo Simões lets us delve into these silent and static moments which often feel like expressionist paintings full of stark beauty. While we can clearly see the artificial qualities of these and other key moments in the film, the movie still draws our attention via its skillful utilization of lights and shadows on the screen of 1.33:1 ratio, and we eventually find ourselves immersed in its tangible atmosphere even while observing its heroine from the distance.
Most of the cast members in the film are non-professional performers, but they are effective in their minimalistic acting. Vitalina Valera, who also wrote the screenplay with Costa, is captivating whenever the camera looks closer at her expressive face, and Ventura, who previously collaborated with Costa in “Horse Money” (2014), is also solid as the other crucial part of the movie.
In conclusion, “Vitalina Varela” is a challenging work which will surely frustrate and baffle a lot you for its detached handling of story and characters, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its distinctive style and atmosphere in addition to its strong lead performance to be cherished. It is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but you should give it a chance if you are willing to experience something different.