NYFF 57: “Vitalina Varela” Offers No Comfort in Sorrow

Vitalina Varela Ventura & Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela (New York Film Festival)

Pedro Costa’s minimalist, based on real events drama is short on plot and long on the relentless weight of living.

Some movies you have to chew on for a little while before you talk about them. It may take a couple hours, a few days, or even a second viewing to give certain films a fair assessment. Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela is such a film. I came out of it initially feeling both unmoved and puzzled, wondering if (a) there was a point to it, and (b) I had simply missed it.

Rather than put my “two minutes after leaving the theater” thoughts to paper and risk embarrassing myself (particularly since this was my first time watching a Costa film), I opted to give it some thought. In twenty-four hours later retrospect, it’s a movie that’s admirable, if not particularly enjoyable. Costa wanted to get what grief feels like across, and he succeeded, even if it occasionally feels a little meandering and empty.

Vitalina Varela is named for the main character, and based on the true life experience of the actress who plays her (and shares the same name). Vitalina travels from her home in Cape Verde to a Lisbon slum, after receiving news of her estranged husband’s death. Moving into his crumbling, bunker-like house, where he chose to live after abandoning her some twenty-five years earlier, Vitalina struggles with grief, anger, and decades of resentment.

I would say more, but that’s the sum of the plot. It’s two hours of sadness, concluding with the tiniest, pinprick-sized bit of hope. That sounds unintentionally dismissive, but it is true that sorrow permeates every frame of the movie. Everyone in the town where Vitalina’s husband lived looks like survivors of a recent bombing, speaking in a hollow mutter and regarding everything with exhausted, wary eyes.

Much of the movie takes place in stark darkness, though with just enough light to see how decayed and joyless the neighborhood is, where everything is rusted and peeling, and front doors slam with a metallic clang, like a prison cell. We hear the sound of laughter and everyday lives taking place, but it feels far off, perhaps coming from another dimension. It’s not entirely clear how Vitalina’s husband died, but it’s possible that he simply lost the will to live, and his neighbors aren’t that far behind him.

The real Vitalina is a commanding screen presence, who makes the mere act of covering her head in a kerchief seem ritualistic.

No one is as beaten down as the town priest (Ventura), who seems to have wrapped himself in despair like a thick, gray shawl. He offers Vitalina no comfort, not even of the meaningless “it was God’s will” kind. If anything, though there’s little warmth between them, she’s the one comforting him, just by showing up at his chapel, which looks like a school classroom after the apocalypse.

Earlier in the film, though she’s never met them before, Vitalina cooks a meal for her late husband’s friends. We know very little about her, but clearly she has a deep well of strength within her to draw from, in order to put aside her own complicated emotions long enough to tend to other people, most of whom offer her nothing in return but some awkward glances and shuffling around.

So no, Vitalina Varela isn’t your feel good movie of the fall. While I admire it, I still, even with further consideration find myself wanting more. The real Vitalina is a commanding screen presence, who makes the mere act of covering her head in a kerchief seem ritualistic. I wanted to know more about her, and her life in Cape Verde, and why she evidently chooses to remain in this sad little town that looks almost like Purgatory itself. We’re given just a sketch of her. Surely this is neither her beginning, or her end.

But, you know, that’s the funny thing about grief. It controls you, you don’t control it. It can appear like a tiny sliver of ice in your chest, or fill an entire room, and you’ll never know how, or when, it will present itself. That is the plot here. In Vitalina Varela, there is no past or future, there’s only now, and now is ruled by sorrow, and the ghosts that light its way.

Vitalina Varela Trailer:

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