Review: Vitalina Varela

There’s a subset of narrative film directors who work almost exclusively with non-professional actors, which may sound like an oxymoron since these performers are in all likelihood paid for their efforts, but in most cases they only appear in one movie and otherwise live lives that have nothing more to do with film. The Portuguese filmmaker, Pedro Costa, belongs to this group, but his methodology is even more refined. For 20 years he has focused on immigrants to Lisbon from the former Portuguese colony of Cabo Verde, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. More to the point, he centers his stories in a small, warren-like Lisbon slum where these people live their lives of quiet desperation, and while that sounds like a cliche, Costa’s use of space and narrative is highly unusual, not so much because it follows documentary procedures, but rather because it plucks its protagonists’ stories out of a strip of their lives as a means of illuminating what it’s like to pass most of one’s existence in the shadow of an alien culture.

His latest work is even more circumscribed. The titular character, who plays herself, is a woman in her 50s who has come to Lisbon to seek out the husband she hasn’t seen in several decades. She has heard that he is dying, and after emerging, confused and barefoot, from a commercial jet, seemingly the only passenger to disembark, she is met by strangers who understand her predicament, if only by association. They inform her, rather abruptly, that she is too late. Her husband is already dead, and she should return to Cabo Verde because “there is nothing for you here.”

That is an understatement. She stubbornly insists on seeing his tiny house, which contains next to nothing, and tries to arrange for some kind of wake or funeral to make sure his soul is conveyed to heaven. Most of the movie is taken up by these protracted and seemingly useless gestures toward convention, and Costa’s insistent use of natural lighting when there often, in fact, is no natural lighting at all in these tightly packed spaces sometimes makes it difficult for the viewer to make any sense of what the shapes and sounds add up to. Add the fact that all the people in the movie are dark-skinned and you basically spend most of your time distinguishing between various moving shadows.

Though Vitalina also played herself in Costa’s previous movie, Horse Money, there isn’t much continuity between the two films; or, at least, not as much to make any real difference in meaning. Near the end, he includes a flashback scene of Vitalina and her husband as newlyweds back in Cabo Verde, and it comes across as a concession to the viewer’s presumed exhaustion with what one critic calls Costa’s “funerary” aesthetic, but the real puzzle is why Costa, who is obviously fascinated with this group of immigrants and their lot, doesn’t explore their lives. There are obviously political forces at work keeping these people down, and while we don’t expect the director to be didactic about it, he’s obviously shrewd and intuitive enough to understand how to project their lives without a whole lot of exculpatory effort. I get it. The guy knows how to make film art out of the most meager resources. Much of this is stunning. But if it has some deeper meaning, it seems to be trapped in his head somewhere.

In Portuguese. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space, Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Vitalina Varela home page in Japanese

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