Now is a great period for home experimentation. Thanks to social distancing, our interests and distractions are largely confined to inside the home. Want to look inside your fridge and come up with unusual burrito toppings? Now is the time. Want to try the latest home workout craze? Now is the time. Want to write that screenplay you have been putting off? Ok, yeah, you probably won’t do that.
But in that spirit, I humbly suggest you watch Vitalina Varela, the new film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa. Having won the Golden Leopard at least year’s Locarno Film Festival, it will be available tomorrow on demand. This is not the sort of film you watch to unwind, unless you’re a highly specific type of art house cinema fan, but knows? That part of you may lay dormant inside.
Whether you are familiar with Costa’s film or not, let this serve as a warning. This film is not entertaining in any traditional way. There is not much dialogue, and the actors mostly whisper their lines. There are no stars in the film (Costa prefers to use non-actors, blurring the line between documentary and narrative). There is little background music, camera movement, and natural light. I should probably go into detail about that last bit: Costa already films Vitalina Varela with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and on top of that most of the shots are bathed in shadow. You can count the fully lit images on one hand. Oh, and there is little plot to boot.
If you are still reading, you probably wonder why Vitalina Varela is worth your attention. To begin with, it is an uncommonly beautiful film. Costa and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões drain the frame of color, which create opportunities for striking, unusual compositions. Many of the films have the evocative light and texture you might expect from a master Dutch painter.
Most of the film is set around a dilapidated tenement in Portugal, with characters hiding in the shadows because they cannot afford electricity. The whites of their eyes are sometimes the only light source, and the way they drift through the frame is an unusual way to depict poverty. Vitalina Varela plays herself – like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, this is a fictionalized version of a true story – but Costa does not opt for the cinema verite approach you find in most documentaries. His sensibility is too stylized for that, since he opts for sensory deprivation and immersion instead.
Over the course of its two hours, a story emerges. We learn about Vitalina, how she lived in the archipelago of Cape Verde estranged from her husband. She finally goes to Portugal to see him, only to learn that he died. Verda follows Vitalina as she adjusts to life in Portugal, so the subtext is the clash between immigration and post-colonial diaspora. No character in the film thinks in terms of globalism, although they are keenly aware that wealth barely trickles to help them. In a coiled performance, Vitalina tends to her anger and resentments like they were plants in her garden. Her quiet monologues are where the film finds its story, and the understated action are her attempts to find peace with ongoing deception from her husband she does not fully understand.
Vitalina Varela does not supply a happy ending for its characters, or even a sense of redemption. Instead, Costa figures that the rigorous depiction and acknowledgement of these people is enough to make his audience care about them. This presents a challenge in the context of Video on Demand: there are countless distractions when you’re stuck at home. There is also no social contract since you’re likely watching alone, or with a roommate/spouse who’s going through their own social isolation struggle. All those hang-ups should not deter you from this film. In fact, I hope they do the opposite. It is a rich cultural experience during a period with a dearth of them, and its inherent challenges will instill a sense of accomplishment, especially when the final image – ironic, jarring, and sad – is revealed.
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