This week we propose three films that portray forms of nobility through movement, animating characters who live in difficult material conditions but become imbued with a certain dignified grace through a filmmaker’s gaze. In our first film, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019), a woman of the same name goes to Portugal to trace her husband’s death. Upon arrival, she is told that nothing left remains for her there, only the marks left by her husband’s life. Costa spoke many times about how he works with actors in his films, saying: “you have to make them truthful, or sometimes larger than life”. Stark contrasts in light and dark shots structure the appearances of Costa’s monumental characters, who seem to reclaim the night, the “night of their desires”, with each step, each articulated word. Another larger-than-life character assumes his accustomed role of “the tramp” in our second film, often admired by Costa: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). From rags to riches and back again, Chaplin’s character falls in love with a blind girl selling flowers. Fabled for its sparse use of sound in the first years of the “talkies”, Chaplin instils his scruffy character with unparalleled grace, comically unravelling the strange upper-class behaviour of those around him. In our last selection, the collaborative silent short film In the Street (James Agee, Helen Levitt & Janice Loeb, 1948), the streets of Spanish Harlem (New York) form the décor of movement. Coincidentally also one of Chaplin’s favourite films, it captures scenes mostly of children playing, caught by a glance. The film’s prologue provides an apt description of the street as a space where “unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer: and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence.”
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019) is available on Eye Film Player.
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) is available on La Cinetek.
In the Street (James Agee, Helen Levitt & Janice Loeb, 1948) is available on Tënk.
Vitalina Varela, 55-year-old, Cape Verdean, arrives in Lisbon three days after her husband’s funeral. She's been waiting for her plane ticket for more than 25 years.
“We remember Vitalina Varela’s first, striking appearance in the hospital, in Cavalo dinheiro (Best Director, Locarno 2014), a true Purgatory where Ventura exorcized the demons of his past, heroic and trembling. She already told the unhappy ending of her love story with Joaquim Brito, the decades she spent in Cape Verde waiting for his return or the invitation to join him in Lisbon, followed by the bitter disappointment of arriving there three days after his death. We remember the documents, the letters, the death certificates she chanted about, tears appearing only when she read her own birth certificate. However, Pedro Costa’s new film tells this story, with a reversed casting – Ventura is now the pastor of an almost entirely abandoned chapel, where Vitalina demands a new mass, and they both whisper an unfixable loss, whether it’s love or faith; from these tears, perhaps, it can proceed.
A new film therefore, where Vitalina mourns the man she’s still only discovering – the miserable lodging with a collapsing roof, the pictures of his female conquests, the visits of all the companions he preferred over her – so that she may, in turn, be reminded and then forget: “There is nothing left of the love, that clarity”. It is a new film, and undoubtedly one of his most beautiful, simplest and darkest, where Pedro Costa crosses another line with the sumptuousness of shading, the hieratic postures, the irradiating anger of tragic chanting and the stunning beauty of insert shots.”
“This prize isn't enough, though we give it unanimously, as we were all stunned, overwhelmed, by this film, a major film in the history of cinema from here on out. Something incredible happened at this festival: to have seen and rewarded a film that will enter the heritage of world cinema.”
Catherine Breillat, president of the Jury at Locarno, on honouring Vitalina Varela with the Pardo d’oro
Mauro Donzelli: Why are you interested in this community of normal people? Usually cinema tends to consider only extraordinary figures.
Pedro Costa: It’s a relationship that has been going on for more than 25 years. I made a film in Cape Verde, a normal 35mm big production. When I came back from Cape Verde to Lisbon, I brought letters and presents to their families, that were immigrants in the city. That’s how I first knew about the neighborhood. Those letters were the metaphor for what I had to do: stay with them, walk around, and perhaps discover new stories and actors, or maybe a new way, more gently, of doing films, a little bit more amateurish. It was ’97 and since then I have never left. It seems to me that those letters, that I never read, are the origins of a lot of stories unknown to me, but I saw the faces of the people that read those letters, becoming happy or sad. This film is a new letter to this community and to ourselves.
How did it change your way of filming this community, knowing it better year after year? Maybe you feel more responsability?
I don’t know if responsability is the right word, because when you do a film what you should care about is just the film. First you should prepare a lot, knowing where to put the camera, microphones or the light, then, if you work with people, you have to make them truthful, or sometimes larger then life. The most important thing is never diminish them, because that is the danger. I made a number of films. I take a lot of time and attention. There are no secrets between us.
Mauro Donzelli in conversation with Pedro Costa2
“Those familiar with Horse Money will undoubtably remember an astounding monologue in that film by a striking African woman who recounts how she traveled for the first time ever to Lisbon from her home in Cape Verde to attend the funeral of her husband, who had emigrated there years before and never sent for her. After an arduous journey of much suffering, she arrived too late; the body had already been buried. Costa’s new film brings this woman boldly forward to re-tell and re-live this horrendous limbo of arriving in a foreign land to join a man, her love, and finding only an absence, a void, the gloom of the slums, and the unkindness of strangers. This profoundly, empathetically suffocating new film, Vitalina Varela, is boldly named after its protagonist—the last so-named was the filmmaker’s landmark documentary, In Vanda’s Room (2000), which saw Costa radically transform his productions into more intimate and respectful endeavors that use collaboration between actors and director and an ethic of daily group labor to produce films that hauntingly transform the real lives and stories of Cape Verde immigrants living in Lisbon’s slums into a monumental, otherworldly cinema of ghosts, dreams, fear, pain, and longing.”
“The debt of Costa to Jacques Tourneur — the director responsible for such modestly budgeted 1940s classics as Out of the Past, The Leopard Man, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and 1957's Curse of the Demon — has long been acknowledged and widely discussed. Here, Simoes (who has collaborated with Costa since Colossal Youth) follows in the magnificent tradition of Tourneur's unsung DPs such as Nick Musuraca, Robert de Grasse and J Roy Hunt; he works with minimal means to deliver a master class in his craft, one that's guaranteed to repay multiple viewings.
Indeed, Simoes' achievement here is arguably worthy of comparison with all-time greats such as John Alton and Gabriel Figueroa. He seems incapable of creating an ordinary or forgettable image as he manipulates shadows, walls, doorways and faces, his dazzling flair with depth-of-field yielding near-3D effects at times.”
- 1. Antoine Thirion, “Vitalina is still here,” website Locarno Film Festival, 14 August 2019.
- 2. Mauro Donzelli, “Vitalina Varela by Pedro Costa, Pardo d’oro (Golden Leopard), Grand Prize of the City of Locarno,” website Locarno Film Festival, 17 August 2019.
- 3. Daniel Kasman, “Locarno 2019. Vital Transmissions,” 15 August 2019.
- 4. Neil Young, “'Vitalina Varela': Film Review | Locarno 2019,” The Hollywood Reporter, 14 August 2019.
With the aid of a wealthy erratic tippler, a dewy-eyed tramp who has fallen in love with a sightless flower girl accumulates money to be able to help her medically.
“Charlie Chaplin, master of screen mirth and pathos, presented at the George M. Cohan last night before a brilliant gathering his long-awaited non-dialogue picture, City Lights, and proved so far as he is concerned the eloquence of silence. Many of the spectators either rocking in their seats with mirth, mumbling as their sides ached, "Oh, dear, oh, dear," or they were stilled with sighs and furtive tears. And during a closing episode, when the Little Tramp sees through the window of a flower shop the girl who has recovered her sight through his persistence, one woman could not restrain a cry.
Mr. Chaplin arrived in the theatre with a police guard, and after greeting some of his many friends in the house he took an aisle seat beside Miss Constance Collier. When the picture came to an end he went to the stage and thanked those present for the enthusiasm with which they had received his work.
It is a film worked out with admirable artistry, and while Chaplin stoops to conquer, as he has invariably done, he achieves success. Although the Little Tramp in this City Lights in some sequences is more respectable than usual, owing to circumstances in the story, he begins and ends with the same old clothes, looking, in fact, a trifle more bedraggled in the last scene than in most others of his comedies. He has the same antics, the same flip of the heel, the same little cane, mustache, derby hat and baggy trousers.”
“If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, City Lights (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp - the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth.”
Images of street life in New York’s Spanish Harlem during the 1940s.
“The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer: and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image.”
From the opening title card of In the Street
“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of fiction, played against and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”
“Bent old women gossip on the sidewalk or walk their scruffy dogs, a little boy and girl play a sweetly flirtatious game with gypsy beads, a child stuck indoors wistfully presses his or her nose and tongue against a windowpane, and kids frolic under water hydrants. Images of children predominate, no doubt because Levitt specialized in candid photos of children’s culture, which she later published in a book titled In the Street. Several of the scenes were shot during Halloween: children scamper up and down the busy sidewalk in surreal homemade masks and costumes, and rowdy boys fill old socks or handkerchiefs with flour, pelting one another with white dust and threatening to scatter it on girls. A few adults are also singled out: a dapper, incongruous man in a fedora who might be a pimp; a pretty young woman in a stylish dress who attracts glances as she walks past; another young woman who shouts up at a friend leaning out a third-story window; and a portly lady in a fox fur and gaudy hat who picks her teeth before donning a pair of gloves.”
“On the one hand, this film is nothing but a reportage pure and simple; its shots of Harlem scenes are so loosely juxtaposed that they almost give the impression of a random sample. A child behind a window is seen licking the pane; a woman with a terrible face passes by; a young man languidly watches the spectacle in the street; Negro children, intoxicated by their Halloween masks, dance and romp about with complete self-abandon. On the other hand, this reporting job is done with unconcealed compassion for the people depicted: the camera dwells on them tenderly; they are not meant to stand for anything but themselves.”
- 1. James Agee quoted in Jonas Mekas, “Notes on the New American Cinema”, Film Culture no. 23, Spring 1962, p. 7.
- 2. James Naremore, An Invention Without a Future. Essays on Cinema, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2014, p. 255-256.
- 3. Siegfried Kracauer, The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Oxford University Press, London, 1960, p. 203.