A dark back-alley drowned in shadow; towering concrete walls on either side; on the top right a row of headstones overlook; the glimmer of a walking stick emerges in the distance, and then a funeral procession. Fifteen minutes later a women disembarks from an airplane and is greeted not by family but by the airport’s cleaning staff. “There is nothing for you in Portugal, Vitalina,” they say. Welcome — or for some, welcome back — to the world of Pedro Costa, the austere Portuguese filmmaker behind such films as Colossal Youth, Horse Money, and other haunting works with which to grapple.
His latest is titled Vitalina Varela and picks up where Horse Money left off, focusing on the eponymous character who first appeared as a supporting player in Horse Money. And after she enters this film off the aforementioned plane, we learn that she has traveled to Portugal to bury her estranged husband, Joaquim, but has arrived too late, missing the funeral by three days. Her sadness and disappointment from such news are palpable — a deep inner funk that grows in the darkness of every frame. Visually speaking, Vitalina Varela will probably be the literal darkest movie to release in America this year. Its decrepit and twisting spaces are swathed in shadows that suggest both the presence of phantoms and the starkness of an empty stage. Costa’s style remains unmistakable — his preference for static tableaux, combined with his own dabblings in installation art, might almost imply a gallery-like aesthetic, in which every shot is best apprenticed as a still image. But surface quietness, sluggish movements of the characters, and overall rigor of a film like Vitalina Varela serve to turn evert subtly into a reverberating event. It’s as if a Rembrandt or de La Tour painting suddenly has come to slow, haunting life.
And that’s perhaps the best way to explain the challenges of Costa’s style: It is an attempt to reclaim some of the profundity and lost magic of the medium. There is a parallel to be found in Costa’s dialogue, in which simple declarative sentences take on the qualities of poetry, of which is sometimes moving, sometimes wearing. His characters are lost in almost cave-like ruins, foggy memories and unfulfilled promises. We learn that the titular Vitalina and Joaquim built a house together in Cape Verde in the ’80s, after which he disappeared; now she is the widow of a man she barely knew, staying in his unfinished home on the outskirts of Lisbon, which crumbles as though to mock her own faded dreams of domestic bliss. “You kept saying you would come, you would come,” she says, as though addressing the dead Joaquim. “And you died and never came.”
Like many of Costa’s films, Vitalina Varela is something of a ghost story, haunted by love and regret. There is nothing for Vitalina in Portugal, but having waited decades for a plane ticket, she is in no hurry to leave. Costa’s direction remains far removed from anything that passes for realistic; his actors move deliberately and slowly and almost never make eye contact. But there is nothing unrelatable about his protagonist’s wounded bitterness, which is revealed in long monologues. Costa, who never runs out of ways to frame Vitalina’s face, even gives her an uncharacteristic dramatic arc, eventually leading the film out of the dank, claustrophobic netherworld into daylight and flashbacks rendered in stunning landscape shots.
Costa’s career muse, Ventura, does have a place in this canvas, cast as a meta character; he plays a clergyman who has lost his flock and now ministers to an abandoned church that looks suspiciously like a small movie theater. Which is about as close as Vitalina Varela comes to bluntly stating its themes: presence, absence, rekindled faith. Few directors paint with such a singular brush, as Costa does — with brushstrokes of dour lyricalness steeped in ambiguity and rich with implications. His movies hover in a twilight zone of psychological disarray, with transcendent beauty peaking through. His film’s often populating souls more than characters. And even in Vitalina Varela‘s stretches of plutonic darkness, there is often a strange, painterly gleam of light shining down, catching glimmers in the eyes of people who never look at each other. Rich, singular, and filled with one haunting moment and image after the next, Vitalina Varela brings demands and many breathtaking rewards.