Saturday, March 07, 2020

249. Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s seventh feature film “Vitalina Varela” (2019): Stunning, austere, melancholic docu-fiction film that highlights the power of cinematography, sound management, lighting, acting, drama and art direction, presenting an aesthetic alternative to Hollywood and Bollywood films

Film director Jean Luc Godard  had said “In the temple of cinema, there are images, light and reality. Sergei Parajanov was the master of that temple.”  Parajanov, the late master filmmaker from Russia, underscored the importance of bright colours and realistic sound, while Pedro Costa’s  Vitalina Varela goes a step further, accentuating darkness, dark skin, and shadows with muted indirect lighting in a “colour” film, aided with natural sound. When you do see bright images in Vitalina Varela, as at the end of the film, it is not just real bright light and colours, it presents a metaphoric change in the film’s narrative structure.

The award-winning actress plays herself in the film about herself

Vitalina Varela is distinctly different from the Oscar nominees of 2019 or well known commercial films with renowned actors. Vitalina Varela is an unusual film with a title that has the name of its lead actress. The film narrates the real story of its lead actress, a Cape Verdean immigrant arriving without papers in Portugal following her husband’s demise.  (She acquired the formal  papers authorizing her stay in Portugal halfway into the production of this film, several years after her actual arrival.) Its director Pedro  Costa, and his close-knit committed production team of cinematographer  Leonardo Simoes, sound mixers (Joao Gazua and Hugo Leitao), production manager, and stock actors can be proud of their low-cost final product that offers higher aesthetic values than the multi-million dollar products from either Hollywood or Bollywood. It is definitely one of the remarkable films made in 2019, if not the decade, at least for audiences less addicted to conventional action and sex that makes a majority of contemporary films make money at the box office. While the film is made by a white (Caucasian) Portuguese crew,  all the  characters in Vitalina Varela  are dark-skinned Africans from Cape Verde. Half of a film festival audience viewing Vitalina Varela  (in which this critic was a spectator) walked out of the film screening halfway, while the other half stayed rooted in their seats right up to the end of the film and stood up to applaud the film, even though none of the filmmakers were present at the screening.  (This critic recalls that in 1979, when an Andrei Tarkovsky film retrospective was screened in New Delhi, during an international film festival, some spectators who had paid for their tickets tore up their seats at the Archana theatre where the films were screened in frustration as they could not comprehend or appreciate Tarkovsky's cinema. Today, ironically the same films, are likely to be treated with awe and respect.)

Ms Varela, the lead actress of  Vitalina Varela, has little or no acting experience. She emotes and reconstructs with staggering dignity the world of her recent widowhood and love for her late husband, Joachim, who chose to live the demanding  life of an immigrant in the Fontainhas sector of Lisbon, Portugal, for some 25 years, retaining for his memory Ms Varela’s wedding photograph, carefully preserved in a photo frame in his ill-lit, shanty dwelling. This award-winning performance of the actress is comparable to the very best in the world, thanks to Costa’s perseverance and extended committed interaction with her developing the film from scratch for several years prior to the shooting of the film. 

The priest (Ventura) and the widow (Vitalina Varela),
in the church without any other worshippers

The most amazing part of the film Vitalina Varela is that there was no prior written script (just as in most  of Terrence Malick’s films) making it all the more difficult for Costa to  attract producers. The spoken words are essentially recollections of Ms Varela’s life and her second interaction in Lisbon with a real Cape Verdean  priest (played in the film by Ventura, a regular actor in several of Costa’s films), who buried Ms Varela’s husband Joachim, just days before her arrival in Portugal. The concept of the film itself emerged from  Costa’s, his wife’s, and his team’s interactions for 4 years with Ms Varela. Costa has explained that the film evolved with those extensive interactions and the award-winning performance Ms Varela was her honest outpouring of grief and loving memories of her husband who had promised her a palace in Lisbon decades ago, only to find it was a mere shack, which included some clues left behind in the derelict abode of the late husband’s recent lover. The evolution of the film has several parallels with the 2019 Brazilian film The Fever, which also was made after its director Maya Werneck Da-Rin's extensive interactions with indigenous Brazilians.

Contemporary Russian maestro Aleksandr Sokurov made unforgettable, poetic  films: Mother and Son (1997) and Father and Son (2003). Had Sokurov made Vitalina Varela, he would possibly have titled it as “Wife and Husband.”  

Vitalina Varela is a recounting of real events of Varela’s arrival in Portugal from Cape Verde island in the Atlantic, off the African continent (and a former Portuguese colonial territory), a few days after the death and burial of her husband Joachim, originally a bricklayer, more recently a person who survived by doing odd jobs. Like Sokurov’s elegiac Mother and Son, Costa’s Vitalina Varela is essentially a monologue of Vitalina seemingly speaking to her dead husband about her memories with him, comparing the stone house in Cape Verde they built together decades ago, with the tin shanty house in Lisbon.  The Lisbon “palace”  that Joachim promised her decades ago that she occupies following Joachim’s  passing is a shanty house with a leaking roof.

The priest (ventura) metaphorically "carrying the cross
on his shoulders
": director Costa and
cinematographer Simoes at their best

The only real dialogues in the film are those between the priest—a real character, a priest of a derelict church in Lisbon, reeling under his guilt of turning away a busload of Cape Verde Christians, who had approached him while he was a priest in Cape Verde to baptise a child without proper papers. The busload of Christians he turned away were killed in a road accident a short while later and the priest carries that cross of his action of refusing to baptise the child to this day.  Costa’s film brings together two individuals from Cape Verde, both suffering from recent tragedies, both religious individuals, both alone in a new country where even God seems to have forsaken them.  One line spoken during  the interaction between the two is evocative: “I had the cross of Christ on my shoulders. I couldn’t move. When I fell, I was free.” A fascinating religious commentary, indeed, in a film that did not have a prior written script.

In Vitalina Varela, the spoken words are less important than the visuals.  A striking point in the film is the arrival of Vitalina in Lisbon.  A plane arrives on the tarmac of the airport and the sole V.I.P. to emerge from it is Vitalina. The “V.I.P.’s” bare feet are shown as she climbs down the steps from the plane. (A cineaste would recall the Japanese director Mikio Naruse’s  classic 1960 film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (with proper shoes) and the inverse relationship of the wet, bare feet shown in Vitalina Varela descending from the plane in this sequence.)  You would expect lights in an airport at night—but the scene is dark, the person is dark skinned, and wearing clothes appropriate for mourning. The “V.I.P.'s" reception committee are made up of fellow Cape Verdean immigrants working as cleaners/support staff at the airport, one of whom honestly tells her “Vitalina, my condolences. You are too late. Your husband’s funeral  was 3 days ago. There is nothing for you in Portugal. His house is not yours. Go back to Cape Verde.” Some reception for a widow!

A rare bright shot in the film is at the grave of Joachim

Just as Parajanov emphasized light in his films, Costa and his cinematographer Leonardo Simoes emphasize the importance of light by erasing it and using it sparingly to accentuate its importance. This is a colour film that appears to show more black (or lack of light) in most of the sequences with indirect lighting often behind the actors to give a silhouette. It fits with its the subject matter—it is a film dealing with death, sorrow, loneliness, African immigrants struggling to survive in Europe, lack of money and love. Even in daytime, much of the scenes are shot in shadows. Each of these dreamlike shots is aesthetically crafted in austere surroundings and a pleasure to perceive.  There are unforgettable sequences of tired immigrant workers returning home at night, hardly speaking to each other, in dimly lit streets close to cemeteries. You are reminded of sparse visual stage settings crafted by playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco for their works. And natural sounds and bleak visuals, "speak" as much as humans do in this film.

Vitalina interacts with another woman,
who has burdens of her own

Ultimately Vitalina Varela is a film about a widow and the spoken words are bound to reflect a feminine viewpoint. In a response to the priest, who has kind words for her dead husband, Vitalina acerbically responds with criticism that is considerably true ”Men favour men. When you see a woman’s face in the coffin, you can’t imagine her suffering.” Suffice it to say that the film captures all this and more.

The citation for the film’s Silver Hugo award at the Chicago film festival  sums it all: “..for a ravishing and masterful vision between horror and melodrama, spirituality and desperation that blew the jury all away."

P.S.  Vitalina Varela is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. Much of the dialogues quoted above are from memory of a single viewing and are approximations. The film won the Golden Leopard award for the best film and the Best Actress award at the Locarno Film Festival; the Silver Hugo Award for the best feature film at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography Awards at the Mar del Plata Film Festival; the Grand Prize of the Jury at the La Roche-sur-Yon International Film Festival (France); and the Best Cinematography Award at the Gij√≥n International Film Festival (Spain). The Brazilian film, The Fever, mentioned in the review, is also one of the author's top 20 films of 2019.