Starring Vitalina Varela. In Portuguese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
There are images in this strange new movie that I’ll probably never forget. In the long run, however, they may be more memorable for questions they raise than any answers found within them.
Vitalina Varela is named after its main actor, playing a version of herself: a woman of 54 who was born in the Portuguese island colony of Cape Verde and has ended up, like so many African expats, in one of the sadder, more worn-out corners of Europe. She shares screenwriting credit with director Pedro Costa, although story and dialogue are secondary to light, mood, and mystery.
Our movie Vitalina arrives on the outskirts of Lisbon just a few days too late to attend the funeral of her husband, whom she hasn’t seen in decades, or so we’re led to believe. It’s hard to know what’s true in a tale that finds our hard-bitten heroine getting off the plane soaking wet and met by five cleaning ladies who stand rigidly with their mops on the tarmac, like angels in a medieval painting.
The night-gallery effects carry through a rather taxing two hours, most of it shot in the dark, with characters only illuminated by hard side-lighting. The slow-motion events take place in a jerrybuilt slum, with corrugated metals, whitewashed stone, and brightly coloured doors jutting against each other at odd angles, with the effect of Basquiat settings getting Rembrandt chiaroscuro.
People rarely connect, but rather look into the distance or, somewhat accusingly, at us. Conversations are expository monologues, with the line between dream and reality hard to divine. And the only other character of note is a palsied preacher, played by Ventura, who was in the director’s last couple of movies.
A rock guitarist turned filmmaker, Costa clearly has affection for his distraught, impoverished subjects, but there’s a tinge of “othering” here, with these stark tableaux vaguely invoking “voodoo” movies of the postwar period. More immediately troublesome is the creeping awareness that everyone is hitting their marks just so, in order to create the perfect doorway silhouette and such—the kind of thing that has vast power in a still photograph but somehow loses its magic when you see exactly what went into it.