The new film by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, “Vitalina Varela,” which opens Friday (after playing at the New York Film Festival last fall), is a work of daring paradox. Despite its avant-garde stylings, it’s a film of virtual archeology, one that recovers the colossal symbolic power of classical American cinema—while nonetheless bearing the burden of new, unchallenged conventions, those of cinematic modernism.
Costa’s film fuses fiction and nonfiction in its casting, with actors who play characters with their own names and . The protagonist is played by a woman named Vitalina Varela, a nonprofessional actor from Cape Verde; the character travels to Lisbon, for the first time, to see her ailing husband, Joaquim, on his deathbed. But she arrives too late: she gets there three days after his death (as actually happened to Varela in real life). Though Joaquim’s friends try to deter Vitalina from staying, she moves into his rundown apartment in a sunken alleyway in the Cova da Moura neighborhood and becomes an integral, inspiring part of his community.
From the start, Costa endows the tale with a pictorial majesty, rooted in a hands-on transformation of film-noir, Expressionist-rooted cinematography. His images (realized by the director of photography Leonardo Simões) feature piercing bursts of light and sepulchral shadows, striated and fragmentary illumination that blends with largely static frames to fuse space and mood, action and emotion. Above all, Costa avoids naturalistic tropes and, by filming Varela and the other residents of her late husband’s complex with poised gestures, declamatory diction, and deliberate pacing, he reflects their grandeur and their strength—as well as their presence as agents of history, even secret agents. (There’s a majestic and poignant moment, both artificial and profoundly authentic, when a barefoot Vitalina descends, in the middle of the night, an airplane’s metal staircase and is greeted, on the tarmac of the runway, by the airport’s night maintenance crew—her husband’s friends, who inform her of his death.)
The society of black Cape Verdean immigrants whom Costa films is presented as a world apart, a community that is literally subterranean, immured behind the high walls of a dug-out alley, requiring passage through a dank and dilapidated tunnel, seemingly separated from the city at large by a perma-shadow, enshrouded in an endless night at the margins of Portuguese society. Pushed into homelessness, forced into a cycle of crime and incarceration, relegated to substandard housing (from which Costa extracts several touches of grim humor, as when Vitalina, while showering, is hit with a spray of falling cement), the residents of Cova de Moura inhabit a perpetual realm of furtive darkness that offers them the cover in which to survive outside the gaze of hostile authority and the menacing chill of official indifference.
The pressure, the shadows, the chill all appear as a palpable thickness of air, an atmosphere of a virtual postindustrial sludge that afflicted Joaquim and still afflicts his neighbors and friends with an unshakable torpor, rendering even their heroic daily exertions for survival sluggish, distracted, and bemused. These immigrants endure an apathy of inner colonialism, in which the hostility that they face and the exclusion in which they live has seeped into their bones and turned their energies self-consuming and self-exhausting.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Aspects of Costa’s artistry are startlingly original—yet others are no less startlingly conventional. He amplifies the sense of weightiness with a lugubrious pacing, using long takes of gradual, incremental, or slight action. It’s conspicuous application of the style that is often encapsulated as “slow cinema”—a term and an idea that I find less than useful, because the pace of a movie is governed by the flow of ideas more than of physical action. Yet it’s precisely here that Costa often yields to often-used and overused methods and styles of the international art-house cinema, in which the willful display of defying the norms of commercial cinema amounts to a kind of branding or positioning as part of a system of production that’s conspicuously outside the mainstream one.
This self-signification is itself a paradox, insofar as Costa himself approaches the story of Vitalina with an utterly sealed-off, unbroken dramatic realism. There’s none of art-house cinema’s frame-breaking, no sense of the director’s own implication in the lives of the characters, his interaction with the performers, or the transactional and transformative effect of his presence. Costa’s self-concealing method is no mere affectation: it also creates a virtual bridge between the modes of classical realism and arch modernism—to assert that the new tradition of European art-house productions and the studio-era one of Hollywood movies aren’t inherently contradictory but, rather, can be forged into an artistic continuum.
The result is that Costa ultimately—and quite ultimately, after a long and ostentatious buildup of moods and motives—brings “Vitalina Varela” to a high pitch of cinephilic expressivity. As Vitalina gets to know more of the life that Joaquim lived, in their decades of separation, through his acquaintances—especially a priest, played by Ventura, a longtime participant in Costa’s films—she becomes more than a part of her new community. She becomes its catalyst, the outsider who turns into an insider and, by her presence, helps to transform it, and to revitalize its residents, by way of her own focussed resolve, her undiminished yet long-untapped energies.
The climactic scenes of the film, in which Vitalina takes part in restoring the community’s rituals and sparks Joaquim’s friends’ and neighbors’ newly invigorated efforts to improve their homes and take control of their lives, are scenes of mighty and ecstatic daylight. In their symbolic outpouring of civic passion and their sense of spiritual transfiguration, they’re reminiscent of—and virtual restorations of—scenes from films by John Ford. The redemptive power and philosophical complexity of these spare yet monumental images are inseparable from the nontheatrical yet imposing presences of Varela, Ventura, and the rest of the cast, as well as from the demonstration of do-it-yourself art-house inventiveness with which they’re created.