Vitalina Varela arrives in Portugal at night on a plane from Cape Verde. Seemingly the only passenger, she descends barefoot to the tarmac. She is greeted by group of cleaners, who inform her that her husband died 3 days ago and there is nothing for her here.
Vitalina Varela received an extraordinary reception upon its release, winning the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival and appearing prominently on most “year’s best” lists for 2019. It’s a truly beautiful film. Almost every one of the mostly static camera compositions would stand alone as a Renaissance painting. Darkness and shadow dominate the images, with careful use of light providing just enough illumination to carve the images from negative space. The colour palette is earthy, consisting mostly of oranges, yellows and browns. Doorways become picture frames; a sun constructed from metal trelliswork becomes a halo radiating from the head of a priest; cables splayed through a cylindrical tunnel glisten like veins of light; dilapidated roofwork and disintegrating girders become ramshackle crosses projected against the sky.
None of the people who appear come across as truly alive. They shuffle through the streets or stand in place, faces lowered to the ground or turned away to stare at odd angles. Spoken words are more monologue than dialogue, spoken softly in a disconnected fashion which suggests little awareness of the existence of other people, even when two characters are supposedly engaged in a conversation. The closest any exchange comes to actual connection is a lengthy period of the film featuring both Vitalina and the priest who buried her husband, which is more an expression of mutual anger and despair than direct communication.
Given the level of extreme stylisation, I was astonished to discover that this movie is actually based on Vitalina’s own life. She was discovered by director Pedro Costa when she had been living in Lisbon for 6 months. After getting to know her (and using her in a small role in another film) he set out to film the experience of her arrival, her decision to stay, and the conflicting emotions of mourning for a husband she had not seen for over 30 years – not since spending 45 days building a house together in Cape Verde.
Day finally breaks forth in the final scenes of the movie, signifying the end of the mourning period and a return to life as Vitalina visits her husband’s grave and strolls slowly through the cemetery, a more peaceful and welcoming place than any of the claustrophobic buildings and industrial detritus seen earlier. Gone entirely are the zombie-like shufflings of the people. The sight of the cemetery is succeeded by a scene depicting the construction of the Cape Verde house, a return to a brighter time – perhaps the last time until now that Vitalina truly experienced light within her life.