Since his 1997 feature Ossos began his work with the disadvantaged communities of Fontainhas in Lisbon, Pedro Costa has become one of cinema’s most singular voices on the dispossessed.

Through his Fontainhas trilogy (the aforementioned Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth) and beyond (Horse Money) Costa has created astonishing, almost dreamlike voyages through dislocation, dereliction, and destitution that is all the more remarkable for their emotional resonance given the filmmakers austere aesthetic. Costa’s latest film, Vitalina Varela, takes as its protagonist a woman who appeared briefly in his last film and tells her story in breathtaking chiaroscuro tableaux.

CineVue’s Ben Nicholson was lucky enough to sit down with Pedro Costa back when the film screened at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Ben Nicholson: You first met Vitalina when you were making Horse Money and was wondering about what first drew you to her and then what compelled you to revisit her and make her the main protagonist of this story?

Pedro Costa: Well, I met her in the neighbourhood where her husband lived, where he built this house, where some of the Cape Verdean’s live now in Portugal. This was not the neighbourhood I was shooting in years ago. It’s more mixed, there are more white people. It’s not so African, let’s say. But I was doing Horse Money and I had the idea of doing a musical sequence with people in houses, interiors. I couldn’t find anymore any traditional houses, that resemble the old neighbourhood, so I went to this neighbourhood with a friend who guided me. He said, ‘I know two or three houses that we might try.’ He said there was one especially, but it was abandoned; it belonged to this guy who died. And we got there; we were trying to see if we could get in. The house seemed very closed and suddenly the door opened and Vitalina was there. She was inside, she was dressed in black.

She probably heard voices – our voices – and was afraid, so came to the door, thought it was the police or immigration. Firstly, we talked a bit; she was the widow and she came to the funeral of her husband. She had come late because of some bureaucracy and clearly, she was afraid, depressed, a little bit hiding. I sensed immediately she was not getting out. Nobody knew her. So I asked if I could shoot her, just one shot and that shot is in Horse Money. Then I asked her if she could be in another shot, just standing like in a photograph, and she said ‘yes’. I felt that she could be in the film, I didn’t know how yet, I just had a feeling. So, I came back, while we were shooting Horse Money, three times and she told me a little bit of her story; her arrival was recent, she had been there for three months. I began imagining a role for her in Horse Money, a sort of visitation, an apparition in Ventura’s nightmares, a strange woman coming to the hospital to visit her husband but bringing very bad news.

So that’s what we did, and while working on Horse Money with her, we began talking about making a film around her – about her story – and she seemed comfortable with it. There was even a kind of – this is maybe pretentious to say – but I thought there was a kind of therapeutic side to it. She could get out a bit, work, be with us. So, she could come out of this morning, come out of this black hole. And I think it helped, the time just spent with us, making the film, and working so hard to build this story.

BN: When you say, ‘build this story’, how does that process work? Are you asking Vitalina to tell you stories and then you’re helping to construct something, or is it much freer flowing than that?

PC: We take some notes, it’s not really writing, but some phrases, dialogue, beginnings and ends, guidelines – things like that, just notes. The work is actually quite classical, or conventional, in the sense that theatre people work or even musicians. First, I talked with her, like I had talked with Vanda or Ventura before, for weeks and weeks, alone with her and that’s the first part of the work. I like to mix, kind of, so in the mornings she tells me her life, or I begin selecting episodes moments, collect, you know, ideas and situations. Then in the afternoon, we go walk around a little bit, through museums, parks. We just walk around the city. I did that for her to see things that could perhaps associate her life to a different world. So, the main work in preparing was to define and establish the moments that I thought were the ones I wanted to work on.

I knew that the film would be the moment of Vitalina’s arrival until the presentation. It would not include her life before or after, it would be just this mourning period – I think we thought of about seven days or 10 days after her arrival, then it became more abstract. We had these kinds of limits because it’s easier to work like that: first night, the second night, third night. So, we started imagining all the scenes; first scene, second scene, a progression that was very chronological. Once I had this idea, I brought the crew. I had money – not much, but I thought I enough – to shoot, like I always do, from Monday to Saturday, every day, for at least one year. It was the three of us, then a fourth person came. So, I brought the crew, all the equipment – not much: camera, lights, sound – and we began. We started with everything in her house; kitchen, the rooms, the living room when all the men are there. Meanwhile, I had selected three or four or five men in the neighbourhood that could be the mourners, that could be friends and colleagues. So, we had more or less everything controlled and then we came to the moment rehearsals and preparation. You can prepare a shot with the camera rolling, trying the light and someone’s acting and then you can say that it’s no good, that we should try something else, or move that scene from the room to the kitchen.

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We have this kind of freedom, we are not obliged by time, just our own discipline. We have certain limitations and we have a certain, I think, decency let’s say. We are not so so crazy. But, I mean, the film’s permit not to shoot if some of the actors are not well, or if we thought we’re not getting the light, or it’s too noisy that day to do a proper monologue, things like that. We do not have the means, and I wouldn’t like to do something different. I did those kinds of things where we have 16 or 600 assistants and we quiet down the neighbourhood, impose ourselves almost by some sort of police means. I did it, I was assistant director on those kinds of films before I made mine, and it was the worst experience in my life. It’s a nightmare – it’s what you see the streets in London too, you know, ‘silence, please!’ etc. It’s awful, it’s a military police operation, so knowing we cannot do that, and we don’t want to do that because it would break completely our trust and relationship with people, we have to wait. We have to wait for a quiet moment for something to pass, someone to get better, etc. etc.

It’s a very risky way of doing films, of course, because you can spend days and days waiting for something. These are days that are not wasted because we are always, in a way, working. We are always there. They are preparing something, I’m with Vitalina, the sound director’s collecting sounds – ambient sounds, he is going around, goes to the house of a lady and records a dinner, or something – and the others are imagining how to place some lights in the kitchen or building some stuff. We are always building because we need things, it’s very artisanal, we have a lot of hammers – it’s our method. So that’s the work and then from take one, let’s say to take 15, things evolve and change. We get, hopefully, in general, I think we get closer to our first idea, closer to a form that we think is correct, or to a light that we think is just so.

BN: Speaking of light: the cinematography across the series of films you’ve made since you arrived in Fontainhas is so striking and feels so deliberate. I wondered if you could speak briefly about your intentions with the cinematography. I don’t know whether you would agree, but the depth of darkness in this film felt even more important than in Horse Money, despite feeling very similar aesthetically.

PC: Sure, it’s darker because that moment in Vitalina’s life is dark. She lives in darkness. She’s like the rock song In Darkness Let Me Dwell by John Dowland. She never opened the door, daylight passed by and she was not aware of it passing, so I wanted to have that in the film in some way – not only the lighting but in the way she stalks, a little bit, all the spaces, how people move. Sound, also; you can hear a lot of things in the dark and you hear slightly feverish, you’re more conscious of sounds, they’re more menacing or something. I would say that the light, it’s not even an idea of light, it’s trying to get close to the light we see, we saw, we experienced in those spaces and in that neighbourhood. Maybe there is a little bit of fantasy, sometimes, which I think is always okay – a little bit of delirium almost, strangeness.

But I think our work, what we discuss, the way we talk when we are with a reflector or a mirror or a lamp is: ‘Remember what was here. What did we feel in this room without light? What did we feel in this kitchen when just a ray of sun came through that small hole?’ I wouldn’t say it’s working the light; it’s how the lights work on the space. The light works on us. The light works on Vitalina. The light predisposed her to a certain rage, or expression, or sadness, or fury. The sound was the same; she was always telling me about the constant fighting. It’s a problematic neighbourhood, people fight, people discussing a very high tone, so this constant war was really…breaking her apart. Just imagine, she needed quiet and there she was in absolutely the wrong place.

There’s an architectural condition that we really are very conscious of. Light gets in through; it’s not like our houses – there are breaks, there are holes. All the spaces are very confined, in the whole neighbourhood the way houses are built is a kind of maze, so the light’s very much reflected light that breaks in at several points and gets in already reflected, it could be just a ray. Sometimes, or most of the time, our work or what we want to do, it’s just not easy. It’s not easy to have it the way it is. Not working the light in a different way, just let the light work on our sensibilities. We’re so familiar with the spaces, we live there in a way, and we try to have it like we experience it.

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BN: You mention sound there a couple of times and I thought was quite interesting because you hear these everyday sounds outside. You’re very aware of a world that seems to be carrying on as normal, while you’re locked into these spaces that feel very internalised.

PC: Yeah, it’s knowing we will probably have a lot of direct sounds because there’s some dialogue, there’s some monologue – I knew Vitalina would talk a bit, I knew Ventura would talk a bit – and all of those scenes are recorded with direct sound, there’s no other way. But, to record direct sound properly, with a good quality and some grain in the voice, we need a certain silence around. So, as I told you, we have to wait a little bit. We need to shut down a little bit the neighbourhood, to silence life a little but that’s a lie, it doesn’t happen like that. Vitalina crying or Vitalina mourning or praying probably – most certainly – would have 50 guys selling drugs, shouting, dogs barking, women fighting with their husbands, babies crying. Everything you get. So then, because we have so much time, and because our sound director can go around recording ambient sounds when it goes to editing, we have a long long time with sound editing and we more or less recreate everything. Then we can select if we want a dog here or a baby there. We select just by some musical instinct or a feeling.

And of course, like you say, this is also to have some interesting contradiction, or contrapuntal things, with Vitalina. The certain flow depends on the mood or depends on the scene. It is very long and very interesting too and very beautiful working with sound editing. I prefer the term ‘sound editing’ to ‘sound design’, it’s not really sound design, it’s association. It’s association, dissonance, harmony. It’s not about designing, the word design means something else. It’s closer to what we do with image, in a way, and about – again, like I told you with light – coming back to our first impressions of the place, of Vitalina. I always like the film to be, in the end, not far from the first reason, or the first desire I had to make it. I was when I was younger, very afraid of forgetting why I am doing this. And I say this because it happens, it happens to a lot of people; that’s the weakness I see in a lot of films. They don’t go to the centre of the Earth, let’s say. They lose themselves; they lose themselves with the money, with the producers, with the actors, with themselves. There are 100 different reasons, but they are not obstinate. We have one reason – to get to the end of this story, to the end of this poem, to the end of this life. That’s what I want to not forget, this personal flame, fire and desire that made me do all of this mobilisation. It’s a lot of work; we’re moving worlds.

BN: I’ve heard you speak before about the other things that you’re doing while you’re making, in the community and the lives of these people.

PC: I don’t want it to sound like I am, or we are, some kind of social assistance; we just help. There’s always something we have to do. Sound guy goes to get sounds and then we need him, ‘where is he?’ and he had to drive Mr Somebody to get his daughter, or he went to buy something for someone. It could be that, it could be helping, in the first days and months, Vitalina with everything. She had nothing; she had no passport; she had no permit to be there. That was a long process and difficult, hard. We didn’t do anything special; we couldn’t do it faster for her – it’s legal paperwork so you cannot rush that – but just being with her in – you know, it’s not hostile but also not very friendly places. Those corridors, those institutions, those doctors, dentists, whatever. She needs things and she didn’t know how to do it in the beginning.

And it comes full circle to last week we finished work on her house. We rebuild the house completely. The roof, we broke some walls in the house, now we’re painting everything, helping her to get a decent house and she’s working there too. All four of us are there when we have time, but we go there. And the house is now, great. It’s just this feeling that you have that you’ll be back, we’ll be back. So, I think there will be another film. For now, I don’t have a reason to go somewhere else. It’s a good situation. I always have this feeling now that there surely will be other Vitalinas around the corner. Why not, you know? In that sense, there’s no limit. Everybody can be in the film, everybody can do this work, but they will have to work.

BN: I wanted to ask about Ventura. As far as I understand this is the first time he has really played a character for you and I wondered how that came about and how that was different to working with him previously when he’s been more in the mode of Vitalina in this one, using his own history.

PC: I’m not sure, we don’t talk about that. Even if I would be working with professional actors, I don’t think I would be talking motivation or things like that. Really, it’s just about the words, the gestures, how to go out, come in – very practical, concrete things. He had this model. Vitalina told me about this priest and I thought suddenly it was a good way of having a companion for her during the second half of the film. She doesn’t go to the church that often, but she looks for the church, and she’s a believer. It’s a problem – no, not a problem but a question – to have that in the film, religion, and faith. It was not comfortable but, with Ventura or without Ventura, this question cannot be avoided. It’s a little bit like In Vanda’s Room. I had shot her in her room talking about her mother, father, life, motherhood, but the drugs were always there. It could not be avoided; it was her life. Vitalina’s the same. I felt we could not avoid that side of her, so in a way it was good to bring in something a little bit concrete, to have this personification of faith through a guy who had lost his faith, this – not confrontation – dialogue. He says ‘you lost your husband; I lost my faith. We’re in this dialogue now.’ And there was this model for the priest. Vitalina told me about this man that we really existed in Cape Verde, Ventura knew him too. It’s so known story, almost a legend because it’s so tragic. So, we proposed it to Ventura, he liked it a lot in the beginning and we joked a lot. All the people in the neighbourhood where he lives began calling him ‘priest’ for weeks and weeks, until now. They are always astonished by Ventura’s work, his stature let’s say, in the films and in this film too – they’re amazed. Not in the sense that you’re a real priest, but that you’re something else, saying unusual things, it’s not you. So, in that way, I think he did a very good job and he brought things to his [laughs] holiness – words, he mixed things. Sometimes I had no idea actually if this came from the Bible. Vitalina worked a lot with me, writing the dialogue, but Ventura brought some strange stuff. I think things from songs; he likes to sing a lot; he knows a lot of Cape Verdean songs by heart. So, in the middle of a Bible thing, he would put a lyric from a song; it worked quite well – a sort of spiritual collage [laughs].

BN: I read a quote in which you compared working on Colossal Youth and Horse Money, and you described Colossal Youth as ‘rehearsed’ and Horse Money as ‘chaotic’. How would you describe working on Vitalina Varela?

PC: This was probably the hardest work we did. Hardest in the sense that it was very intensive. To find things, research, do them. We couldn’t give up. And we were a small crew for this ambition. I don’t know, maybe because of what we just talked about, it feels now like a ceremony. Every day, or the good days, felt like a kind of ritual. A lot of things came together. I mean Vitalina and cinema came together. In a way, I think that Vitalina needed that, needed to work in this very concentrated way, and I think [laughs] cinema needed Vitalina.

Vitalina Varela is in UK cinemas now. A retrospective of Costa’s films is taking place at the ICA until 15 March.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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