You don’t have to be an art history expert to see the beautiful influence of renaissance portraiture in Pedro Costas’ Vitalina Varela. Along with cinematographer Leonardo Simões, Costa has staged his film as a series of “still lifes,” bathed in baroque browns and deep shadows. Harsh lighting and heavy vignetting keep focus on what’s in front of us, but the film begs viewers to wonder what’s outside our clear field of vision. Based on the real-life experiences of its lead actress and namesake, Vitalina Varela is a haunting tale of a widow’s search for the truth about her estranged husband and a stunning, if enigmatic, look at regret and poverty.
Taking a cue from Japanese directing giant Yasujirō Ozu, Costa’s camera seldom moves, and much of the action comes courtesy of background imagery being obscured by the simple motion of characters naturally moving about the scene. Carrying this style forward, Costa locks us into tiny, cramped visual boxes as we navigate the mazelike corridors of a Portuguese slum. It’s impossible to see the size and scope of this community in its entirety, but if the long and twisting alleyways and the constant din of unseen residents is any indication, it must be sizable and vibrant.
The film begins with a slow, shuffling funeral procession through a dimly lit, yet somehow brightly photogenic backstreet. Marchers emerge from the darkness of the screen’s periphery and into the bright light, only to be swallowed up by the unknown once again. The mourners have an air of barely glimpsed ghosts, a motif that carries throughout the film, both formally and thematically.
As the truth emerges about Vitalina’s husband’s life and revelations are made about her own, the film breaks out of the darkness and into the light, fostering new life chapters and new beginnings. The plot unfolds slowly (perhaps too slowly for some) but its rewards are enriching and empowering. It’s an ode to the working poor, the ones who are left behind and those who persevere no matter the circumstance. Ultimately, Vitalina Varela is a dark film only in the literal sense. Hidden in its bleak and elegant recesses are the brushstrokes of life at its fullest.
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