When a filmmaker develops a style as distinct and seemingly simplistic as Pedro Costa’s and when that style proves effective, why should they bother making any major changes to it? Vitalina Varela is recognizable as a Costa film from the opening shot. In a boxy aspect ratio, we look down a rubble-strewn alleyway of decaying concrete lit by a harsh, unfiltered spotlight. This is just the first of the many long, static takes that will make up the next two hours. What differentiates Vitalina Varela is the relatively abundant presence of ecclesiastical purple amidst Costa’s nearly monochromatic scenes, a symbol of the film’s spiritual concerns about the afterlife, both that of the eternal soul and that of those left behind after one’s life has ended.
Vitalina Varela takes its name from its lead character, who takes her name from the actress herself. Here, Vitalina has flown from Cape Verde to Lisbon. It’s her first time in Portugal but the visit is not a happy one. She has come because her husband, who has spent most of the last 40 years living apart from her, is dying. Only she’s too late. By the time she arrives, he is dead and buried. The story that unfolds as she attends to his house, meets his friends and consults with his priest is relayed as sparely as possible, with the focus instead placed on Vitalina’s ambivalent grief and her reckoning with her past and future relationship to her husband.
When discussing Costa’s aesthetics, it’s tempting to focus on the visual elements, as I have done above. Yet so much of his genius lies in the use of sound. Despite the sparse human population of his frames, there is often a din coming from offscreen–children playing outside or adults arguing in the room next door–reminding us of the close quarters of urban poverty. Intimacy is further highlighted by the volume of more immediate sounds. Gravel on the dirt floor crunches underfoot; when the priest removes his sash, we can almost feel the fabric slide across the back of his neck.
Varela, the actress, appeared in Costa’s 2014 Horse Money. Vitalina Varela also features actor Ventura, the star of 2006’s stunning Colossal Youth. For most of his career, Costa has focused on Portugal’s Cape Verdean population, particularly the poor among them. What keeps his work from verging on the patronizing is that he refuses to other his characters. He doesn’t compare or contrast them to some control group of perceived Portuguese normalcy. His films aren’t about how the immigrant’s life differs but simply about how it is. In summary, this is Portugal just as much as any other Portuguese neighborhood is. Vitalina has it harder, though. As an immigrant even among the immigrants, she’s at a remove. Much is made of her inability to speak Portuguese, the language in which her husband wrote to her and in which mass is conducted by the Cape Verdean priest. Costa returns to the image of a wooden pole among the cement houses, a contrast of the natural and the unnatural, illustrating Vitalina’s feeling of displacement.
Again, though, this is not a film about immigrants or ethnic minorities any more than Costa’s other films set in the same milieu are. This is a film about the connection between the living and the dead; a shot of Vitalina’s wide eyes emerging from the darkness tellingly evokes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, another great film on the subject. With Vitalina Varela, Costa asks if we can still feel the presence of the dead. Can we talk to them? Can we touch them? And if we can’t, why can’t we stop longing to?