Director Pedro Costa (“Horse Money”) is known as the Samuel Beckett of cinema. In “Vitalina Varela” (starring Varela herself in the title role) the director has never been more eerie.
The film is striking, poetic and uncompromising in its minimalist approach. The film is not easy to handle with its lingering meditative tone but the reward is great for those that have a patient eye.
Varela, the artist, is relating her actual story to the camera. She was married to a man and they had been hard at work building a house in Portugal when he abruptly left with little explanation. She phoned him and he assured her that he would return. Forty years pass before she can confront her wayward spouse.
The film is existential in the extreme with little dialogue, possessing echoes of “The Seventh Seal” and Lars von Trier. Varela enters a dark and desolate house and the ceilings crumble around her, suggesting that she is undergoing an emotional earthquake. So many elements disintegrate around her it appears that it is only a matter of time before she too turns to dust.
Her one frequent visitor is an aged priest (Ventura) who can no longer bring himself to deliver Sunday Mass as he is exhausted, losing faith.
Though this is somber stuff, the film is masterful in detail and atmosphere with painterly cinematography by Leonardo Simões that recall the paintings of Caravaggio. There is even an echo of Rod Serling when Varela spies an airplane on the tarmac with no one exiting.
Varela wanders through her husband’s old house like a ghost with scarcely anyone to engage. She is reduced to talking to herself and posing what-if scenarios.
“Vitalina Varela” is one of the most spare and haunting films that I have seen. The slow and deliberate rhythm of the main character, at times like life itself, works on your preconceptions and expectations.
The stark lighting has a hypnotic effect converting even the most mundane of gestures into high drama and as a result, one is compelled to contemplate the otherwise unthought. What was once thought of as ordinary now possesses the cinematic fog of film noir. A human silhouette can either symbolize the redemption of a husband or a vexing question mark.
“Vitalina Varela” is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
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