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.