Men and women, entranced like zombis trapped between life and death and lit as if by the pale glow of the moon, shuffle in a procession down an otherwise empty street at night. They weave through the narrow walkways between angular concrete shacks. Their shadows arch up and along the walls, twisting and contorting as they dance over plant pots, doorways, and window-frames. As the twitching shadows parallel to them do the walking, the figures themselves are barely visible, slipping in and out of the deep shadows – black as charcoal – that cluster at the edges of the frame, shielding their content from even the faintest light.
Director Pedro Costa
Manuel Tavares Almeida
Marina Alves Domingues
So begins Vitalina Varela, the latest work by one of our planet’s two or three greatest living filmmakers, Pedro Costa. Staking its claim to a place in the pantheon of films that share a namesake with their female protagonist, Costa’s new film is a plaintive and piercingly beautiful vision from a dimension that, at least as far as this critic is concerned, is far removed from the world of contemporary cinema. It concerns itself with the same group of ailing and impoverished Cape Verdean immigrants familiar from Costa’s previous films, including the frail, enigmatic Ventura and – of course – the enchanting Vitalina Varela herself, who first appeared in 2014’s Horse Money.
Here, we follow Varela as she moves from Cape Verde to her deceased husband’s shack in a bairro on the outskirts of Lisbon. As she explains, he left her without warning and moved to Portugal, presumably in search for work as a bricklayer. It would take 30 years before she could join him. Naturally, when she does – given her often grief-stricken and wildly unfortunate antecedents in the Costa universe – she discovers that he is dead; that is, three days before she steps off the plane.
After retreating into isolation in the shack, Varela begins to hallucinate episodes and players from her past. As often in Costa movies, these visits from the other side play closer to sleepy episodes of drug-induced deliria, with protagonists either slumped over in armchairs in unlit rooms or else wearily shuffling between different areas of the bairro and muttering to themselves, as if whispering an incantation. The sounds of everyday life in the neighbourhood – blaring televisions, shrieking babies – fill otherwise near-silent moments of pause, suggesting a world of an altogether different character to the almost cartoonish misery of Vitalina’s existence.
Costa’s ability to both create images of such richness and then to freight them with such a profound sense of past trauma is uniquely his. The people in his movies stumble and stagger through crumbling dreamscapes of their own making – phantasmagorical and sepulchral on one hand, horrifyingly real on the other – in search of some fleeting chance at expressing their grief or even summoning a sense of it to the present day.