Another installment in Portuguese director Pedro Costas’ Fontainhas series—films set among and inspired by an impoverished, pop-up neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon—Vitalina Varela is a work of astonishing visual richness, boasting a depth of dark and light, a fullness of color, and an exquisite care for composition.
Nonprofessional actor Vitalina Varela anchors the film which bears her name. In a story for which Varela and Costas share screenplay credit, she plays a woman who has finally, after many years, followed her immigrant husband from the island of Cape Verde to Portugal, only to arrive a few days after his death. She lingers in the hovel he had built, learning what she can about the time they were apart and trying to come to terms with why he left her.
The movie’s opening shot marks it as a film deserving of your undivided attention. The camera focuses on a dark and narrow stone street, with high walls on either side. Crosses—perhaps from a cemetery?—peek over the top of the wall on the right, while a deep black pit sits in the back of the screen, into which the street disappears. Slowly, figures emerge from it, eventually forming a silent procession under cover of darkness.
Nearly every shot that follows has a similar, painterly quality. When colors finally appear—a blue mark on a wooden pole, laundry hanging from a line—they’re all the more vibrant for the inky blackness that otherwise dominates the screen. Nearly the entire film takes place at night, with the immigrants moving quietly, as if they don’t want to alert “official” society to their presence. In each scene, cinematographer Leonardo Simões arranges a shaft of light from some natural source, beaming into a dim space like a vital source of life.
Most importantly, the light always finds Vitalina’s face. There is a moment when she sits on the bed in her late husband’s mausoleum-like home with her back toward us, looking toward a window. A mirror next to the bed reveals her face, which is illuminated by the light streaming within. It’s as if a variation of Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” has come to life.
These portraits of Vitalina are crucial to the film as a work of empathy. After an hour of the darkness, the silence, and the general somnambulant atmosphere (there is no music), I began to worry that Costa’s filmmaking technique was dehumanizing these characters. Aside from Vitalina, they largely remain at a distance—silent sufferers—and move about in a zombified state. Yet in her later portrait sequences, Vitalina begins speaking to her late husband in moving monologues that open her inner life and allow us in; we begin to understand the movie not only as a social document, but also the intimate story of a strained relationship between a husband and wife.
In this way, Vitalina Varela avoids the tag of poverty porn and becomes something far more empathetic. The performances can be seen, then, in the tradition of the films of Robert Bresson, whose impassive actors allowed us to map our own emotions onto their faces. Vitalina Varela even features one of Bresson’s favorite characters: a priest in a crisis of faith.
That priest, played by a Costas veteran who goes by the name of Ventura, has a late-film monologue of his own reflecting on the two halves of Jesus’ face at the time of his death—the one side radiant, the other in shadow. “We were born from those shadows,” he tells Vitalina. That could be a problematic notion if it were tied to the color of the characters’ skin, but I don’t think that’s what Costa or his performers intend. If Vitalina and her fellow immigrants are in shadow, it is only due to their unjust circumstances, not who they are as human beings. The movie makes that clear every time the radiant light finds Vitalina’s face, and the soulful eyes glowing within.