One of the things Pedro Costa says about filmmaking is that “If you don’t respect time, everything in the cinema goes too fast and too quick.” For Costa, there is patience in telling and executing a story, and then there is time.
In Vitalina Varela, the long streets of Lisbon are haunted by the migrant workers from Cape Verde: eerily walking in a tired daze. Our protagonist, Vitalina Varela plays herself in a docufiction narrative where she arrives in Lisbon, barefoot and wet–three days late from her husband’s funeral. Vitalina had previously appeared in Horse Money (2015) where she talks about how Joaquim, her husband, has left them in Cape Verde 25 years ago to work in Lisbon. Here in her own film, we watch as she catches up to him: nothing but a ghost and a house that bares no semblance to the man she had known years before.
I had not seen a Pedro Costa film prior to this film and was surprised with its compelling execution of grief; a woman in a foreign city with no friends attempting to discover and reconnect with the ghost of a husband. Varela is magical; commanding grief and anger at once, as she narrates the 45-day journey of building their house back in Cape Verde. In the labyrinths of Fontainhas, there is nothing but a stranger she is trying to piece together.
Alongside Vitalina, is a priest portrayed by Ventura whom she finds companion with, as well as a couple: Ntoni and Marina. The latter of whom she occasionally feeds and give home to. For the ailing priest, her questions and despair.
As the film moves on, it becomes something else entirely, that I can no longer tell if Vitalina is grieving or dreaming. She tells us memories of his absence, of his affairs, and a man who had made no efforts in contacting her back in Cape Verde. And as she tries to understand him, the house itself makes it known that it, too resists her. In small moments of hilarity, we find that Joaquim had built the doors bad enough to hit her on the head, cinderblocks falling on top of her as she takes a shower and the ghosts of other men in the halls of it. No one dares to give her answers and so she pursues. There is only time, grief and the ghosts of it.
Costa’s use of minimal light creates shadows and images in a gorgeous way as if the weight of the darkness cannot be completely shrugged off. It exists and keeps on existing. Leonardo Simões’ cinematography creates a sense of hell-purgatory atmosphere in it, maximizing the use of shadows and light to elegantly paint its grieving characters. And with minimal dialogue, the sound work gives a sense of poetry in its spaces: the falling of the cinderblock on Varela’s head, the heavy rain against the leaking roof, and the days after, peace.
Vitalina Varela offers no answers, no coherent narrative but an honest portrayal of the struggles of a woman in her grief. One can only make peace with it by commemorating and holding the hells of its absence accountable.