'Vitalina Varela': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
A spellbinding nightmare.

Acclaimed Portuguese writer-director Pedro Costa's seventh fictional feature is competing for the Golden Leopard at the long-running Swiss festival.

Half a decade after landing Locarno's best director prize for Horse Money, Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa boldly returns to the Golden Leopard competition with Vitalina Varela — an undeniably demanding but cumulatively rewarding mood piece that looks set to score at least as highly with the jury. Indeed, this intricately crafted, quietly moving study of grief could finally see Costa land a "big one" in terms of festival trophies. Many observers of top-level artistic cinema regard such an elevation as decidedly overdue: For a small but influential section of global cinephilia, Costa has ranked among the form's leading practitioners for more than two decades.

Already confirmed for North American play at both the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, this downbeat, intimate epic aims to break no new ground for Costa in terms of atmosphere (dank), subject matter (harrowing) or narrative approach (enigmatic), but it will amply cement his revered status and could plausibly score wider exposure than any of his productions since 2006's Cannes-competing Colossal Youth. While by any conventional standards a ruminative and opaque experience, it moves at a faster overall clip than Horse Money, which it overlaps story and character-wise (the two function both as stand-alones or as elements of Costa's ongoing "cinematic universe").

Even if audiences find themselves adrift in the convolutions of the screenplay's non-linear narrative, there are near-incessant compensations in the form of Leonardo Simoes' cinematography. In a film set almost entirely at night — "ext.day" sequences are restricted to the final 10 minutes — Simoes conjures chiaroscuro wonder after chiaroscuro wonder via his color-digital images of one labyrinthine Lisbon slum-cum-ghetto and its adjoining cemetery and small forest.

The debt of Costa to Jacques Tourneur — the director responsible for such modestly budgeted 1940s classics as Out of the Past, The Leopard Man, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and 1957's Curse of the Demon — has long been acknowledged and widely discussed. Here, Simoes (who has collaborated with Costa since Colossal Youth) follows in the magnificent tradition of Tourneur's unsung DPs such as Nick Musuraca, Robert de Grasse and J Roy Hunt; he works with minimal means to deliver a master class in his craft, one that's guaranteed to repay multiple viewings.

Indeed, Simoes' achievement here is arguably worthy of comparison with all-time greats such as John Alton and Gabriel Figueroa. He seems incapable of creating an ordinary or forgettable image as he manipulates shadows, walls, doorways and faces, his dazzling flair with depth-of-field yielding near-3D effects at times.

Costa has long been obsessed with such dilapidated urban spaces, phantom zones existing parallel with and adjacent to the "normal" world: In Vitalina Varela, he works with sound designer Joao Gazua to emphasize offscreen action. There seems to be a constant, lively hubbub of voices and music going on mere feet away, underlining the stony solitude experienced by the eponymous Varela — played by a dignified, strikingly self-possessed non-pro actress of same name, who also shares a screenplay credit.

The fictional Varela's story is a tragic one: Originally from the Cape Verde islands, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of northwest Africa, she was abandoned by her husband after a few years of marriage when he suddenly fled to the mainland capital. Only after many years was she able to make the journey herself, ironically arriving just three days after his funeral.

Near the end of the film's disorienting 10-minute pre-titles prologue we see Varela arrive at Lisbon Airport, barefoot and somehow dripping wet, to be greeted by glum-faced acquaintances who work there as cleaners. From these early stages, it's clear that what we're seeing and hearing is not intended to be taken as objective reality. Rather, we're experiencing a hidden Lisbon through Varela's grief-stricken eyes and ears.

Accustomed to the wide open spaces of rural Cape Verde, Varela struggles to adapt to the cramped, claustrophobic, dysfunctional neighborhood her estranged husband called home. Even his shack-like dwelling is deficient in every crucial regard: "This house of yours is a poorly done job," she kvetches in monologue, "I keep hitting my head on these shitty doors." Such moments of deadpan humor are fleetingly rare, but crucial spots of lightness among the otherwise crushingly dour mood as Varela stoically ponders her lot.

She largely rejects company, until at the midway point of the film she makes contact with an elderly local priest — played by mono-monikered Costa regular Ventura. Essaying a different character from his role in Horse Money, Ventura is as ever (despite his onscreen frailty here) a commanding and even mesmerizing presence. His nameless character gradually provides Varela with some measure of consolation, while simultaneously rekindling his dormant Christian faith: "We share our mourning. You lost your husband, I lost my faith in this darkness."

Otherwise, plot details are minimal: Varela occasionally sees a homeless couple, Ntoni (Manuel Tavares Almeida) and Marina (Marina Alves Domingues), whose relationship also ends sadly due to a horrifying development which, like much in this pic, takes place offscreen. Vitalina Varela is instead an evocation of existential ennui and dread: a decidedly different and rarefied — one could say "elevated" — kind of horror film from the supernatural-themed B-movies directed by Tourneur in his heyday, but one entirely in keeping with what many around the world regard as a grim epoch for humanity and the planet.

Costa can therefore perhaps be compared to another current "horror master" who is all-too-seldom acknowledged as such. David Lynch is likewise able to guide viewers through nightmarish but strangely compelling avenues into uncharted, unimagined territories. The American, of course, does so with the leavening of a relatively genre-oriented, mainstream-aware sensibility; Costa, by contrast, makes few compromises or concessions, although the arrival of new editor Vitor Carvalho (collaborating with Horse Money's Joao Dias) seems to have pepped proceedings up by a small but decisive notch.

Production company: OPTEC (Sociedade Optica Tecnica)
Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida, Marina Alves Domingues, Francisco Brito, Imidio Monteiro
Director: Pedro Costa
Screenwriters: Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela 
Producer: Abel Ribeiro Chaves
Cinematographer: Leonardo Simoes
Editors: Vitor Carvalho, Joao Dias 
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Concorso Internazionale)
Sales: OPTEC, Lisbon, Portugal

In Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole
124 minutes