Costa fans know what they are going to get: static long shots taken at night indoors in the Lisbon slums peopled by immigrants from Cape Verde.
Much like Wes Anderson, it seems that Pedro Costa is not interested in changing up his filmmaking formula. Viewers know what they are going to get: static long shots taken at night indoors in the Lisbon slums peopled by immigrants from Cape Verde. Costa does not use much dialogue, never has his camera move and avoids daylight with enough tenacity to make it seem he is a vampire.
Vitalina Varela is something of an apotheosis of his dour, spare style and minimalist storytelling. The plot revolves around the eponymous protagonist, who journeys to Portugal from her Cape Verde home upon receiving news of her husband’s death. He had been living in the Lisbon slums for 40 years. She meets a few of the locals who were friends of her husband, including the local parish priest, who is also a Cape Verde émigré. She also speaks to her husband (or rather his spirit, since he is obviously not physically present) about how disappointed she is with his choice to live in squalor in Portugal rather than with her on their farm in Africa.
Even more so than in his previous films, Costa seems driven to purge all energy and dynamism from Vitalina Varela. The characters mope and shuffle through the camera frames, slouching when sitting, mumbling and whispering while speaking, as if all vitality and desire has been pressed from them. It is much like a Roy Andersson film in presentation, but whereas Andersson’s films are hilarious, Costa is definitely avoiding humor here. He instead wants to portray bleakness and meaninglessness. It is difficult to glean any purpose in his choices or even a motive for his making the film.
There is definitely beauty in the cinematography, especially the way that the camera captures faces in the extremely dark interiors or how it lingers on glistening green bottles as a street light casts a thin beam through a narrow window. But a few ephemeral moments of aesthetically pleasant photography seem little justification for the film’s existence. What are the questions posed by Vitalina Varela about marriage, immigration and society?
The characters in the film are religious, have no cell phones and use no electricity, yet they inhabit 21st century Portugal. Is Costa pointing out inequality in modern Lisbon? It does not seem like it, since he never shows any other part of the city. The characters’ homes have electric appliances in them – TVs, microwaves and light switches are all obviously placed within frames – yet they do not use them. Is this because Costa just wants to have low-light conditions for his signature cinematography? Has their electric been cut off for lack of payment? Or is Costa suggesting that these religious folks shuffling around with kerosene lanterns in dilapidated housing are just backward primitives? Vitalina’s husband died, after all, because he rejected going to the hospital for surgery, and most of the rest of the film shows either Vitalina or the parish priest earnestly endeavoring to speak with the spirits of the dead. So is Costa highlighting the anti-modernity of the Cape Verde diaspora in Lisbon? Are we supposed to view these characters as noble savages untouched by the toxicity of modern life, to be celebrated? Or have they been left behind by so-called progress, the bodies sacrificed to fuel the machines of industrialization and profit, to be pitied?
None of the answers to the questions posed by the film are very satisfying, nor are the questions all that profound or original. Vitalina Varela, then, is something of a hollow vessel for one’s thoughts. While it is unclear why Costa wanted to make the film, it does seem apparent that his next cinematic venture will be yet another film full of dark, still shots populated by immigrants from Cape Verde now living in the Lisbon slums.