Portuguese director and cinéaste’s favourite Pedro Costa’s seventh feature – his first since 2014’s Horse Money – is a work of astonishing aesthetic beauty, made up of static compositions and use of chiaroscuro that recalls the Dutch masters. After premiering last year at the Locarno Film Festival, Vitalina Varela will delight devotees of Costa’s earlier work.
Returning from Horse Money, Vitalina Varela – sharing a screenwriting credit with Costa – plays a version of herself drawn from her own life. Vitalia Varela is not documentary, though neither could it truly be called fiction in the strictest sense: rather, it is a distillation of grief and bereavement, drawn from real life and heightened by devotional vision. Costa favourite Ventura returns, too, here as a priest abandoned by his flock, tending a chapel with nought but empty chairs and dust to preach to.
Costa treats both figures with reverence through visual juxtaposition, combining the profane and the divine; the circular pattern of a rusted metal gate becomes a halo for Ventura’s priest; a crucifix shines in mud; TV aerials become impromptu crosses; Vitalina casts her gaze upwards, as if to heaven, while sat in a filthy bathroom. The motif of a shrine decorated with Vitalina’s brilliant violet scarf is returned to several times through the film. Each image is static yet something invariably changes with each iteration: inertia and change become imperceptibly intertwined.
The plot is as sparse as possible. On hearing of her husband Joachim’s death, after he abandoned her in Cape Verde years earlier, Vitalina arrives in Lisbon. The roar of the jet engine announces her arrival like a thunderclap tearing the aural inertia, while she is greeted by a high-vis wearing congregation who tells her flatly, “There is nothing for you here”. Much of the film involves Vitalina listening to Joachim’s friends recall his life: a homeless man tells of the time he employed him, another of bathing Joachim in his illness. Vitalina speaks directly to Joachim, berating him for his abandonment and his shoddy workmanship on his crumbling house.
Bathed in darkness, buildings crumble around its inhabitants and funeral processions cut their dreary way down narrow alleyways, conjuring memories of the underworld in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. Entropic decay bleeds into the very fabric of the film, banished, temporarily, with the coming dawn.
Ubiquitous silence is relieved by the sounds of life – muffled television sets, drunkards partying, quiet reminiscences between old acquaintances – but if anything only seems to emphasise the beckoning void. This purgatorial vision of Lisbon persists throughout the film, conjuring a stillness that confines space to the limits of the frame; characters tend to sit still and only occasionally move in or out of frame. When they speak, it is rarely in the form of dialogue. The result is a series of images that function more like a series of devotional paintings than scenes in a flowing narrative as if all that exists beyond the frame is pandemonium.
Christopher Machell |@MachellFilm