'Vitalina Varela': Pedro Costa writes a fascinating chronicle of mourning, uprooting and oblivion in contemporary Portugal

'Vitalina Varela': Pedro Costa writes a fascinating chronicle of mourning, uprooting and oblivion in contemporary Portugal

There is no hint of lightness in any of the shots of 'Vitalina Varela', flooded with darkness and shadows that impose their weight, that appease and crush the quasi-immobile bodies that dare to combat the blackness of those wildly static images.

Walking in darkness
Only one figure refuses to submit to the shadow: Vitalina, a woman who leaves a home built with the sweat and effort of a lifetime to search for her husband, a Cape Verdean immigrant in the now-defunct Lisbon suburb of Fontainhas and a slave to a darkness by the one that has finally been swallowed.


Wandering, like his characters, between fiction and non-fiction, Pedro Costa updates the baroque gloom in its most political aspect in his latest film, using wild backlights provided by low-key lighting to reconstruct, amid rigid shadows, the life of that stranger for whom Vitalina leaves what little she had to find nothingness.

The darkness is, therefore, an aesthetic bet that becomes a subtle exercise of neocolonial representation: the shadow hides between wrinkles and the faces of immigrants who have never been at the center of the story, and its thickness reminds that, even making them visible, they continue being subjected to the blackness of oblivion.

Through these spaces passes 'Vitalina Varela', a person-actress from Costa who already appeared in 'Horse money' and who here takes the leading role to search for her late husband Joaquim de ella, once absorbed by the gloom.

Among the same ruins and buildings on the brink of collapse of the forgotten Lisbon neighborhood in which a sick Ventura wandered in the previous film, now lives a pained Vitalina refusing to let the memory of her husband disappear, investigating everything she can about him: his habits, his vices, his parallel and unknown life. In short, she all that she lived in the shadows and she could never (or wanted) to tell.

There is, therefore, a double operation on memory and representation: first, that of Vitalina, who tirelessly searches for any clue, no matter how small, among the rubble of the dispossessed and forgotten by globalization and gentrification, to rebuild life of her husband, unraveling her heartbreak and realizing, finally, that Joaquim was a stranger.

And a second, carried out by Costa himself, who again approaches Cape Verdean immigration in Portugal, intruding between the cracks of Vitalina's shadows, to measure her pain, her grief and her loss, but also her filmic approach to a reality. about which he narrates as much as his characters-actors allow them.

The darkness, also silence
The exacerbated statism of 'Vitalina Varela' responds not only to its mimicry with the spirit of Caravaggio and his representations of the most extreme marginality, but also to a particular formula of partial visibility that not only operates in the visual but also in the sound.

And it is that Pedro Costa's film, sparing in words, is full of noises, a constant bustle that deafens the mourning and the silence of the newcomer Vitalina, invading her privacy as interruptions in her story.

The silences of the film are never clear, nor are the bodies stained by the shadow that follow one another like specters, like ghostly presences of a tale of migrants forgotten by the ancient metropolis who also forgot their purpose, if ever. had. Bodies that do not inhabit the spaces invaded by the shadow, with the exception of Vitalina, whose striving purpose is to recover the home that she promised to build together with Joaquim.

Religion becomes a particular bastion of 'Vitalina Varela' through an old priest who is brought to life, precisely by Ventura, on whom Vitalina relies as a confessor but also as support in the face of her contrite mourning.

The protagonist is the only faithful who attends the empty and ramshackle room in which the parish priest, a kind of migrant transcript of the rural priest of Bresson or of the update proposed by Paul Schrader in 'The Reverend', saddened by the absence of bodies Let them fill their filthy cabin with prayer.

And it is that religious expression, reduced to a minimum in construction, sound and light, is also a neocolonialist mirror, as the priest's advice to Vitalina makes explicit, which urges him to learn Portuguese to speak with spirits, since it is the only language that they understand. Something that seems to be another reflection of Cape Verdean reality, an independent country since 1975 that still maintains Portuguese as its official language, despite the fact that most of its citizens speak Cape Verdean Creole.

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