Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 27, 2020 9:15 pm 
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PEDRO COSTA: VITALINA VARELA (2019) - NYFF

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VITALINA VARELA IN VITALINA VARELA

Ne change rien

One sees Pedro Costa at festivals. Film at Lincoln Center featuring him theatrically is an unusual gesture (one that's been changed to an on-demand offer due to coronavirus). Reviewing this new film, Armond White is calling him "the Rembrandt of the ghetto" - a dramatic image that's not far off. I've reviewed his 2006 Colossal Youth (SFIFF 2007), 2009 NYFF Ne Change Rien (a beautiful music doc about Jeanne Balibar), and the 2014 NYFF Horse Money. Vitalina Varela was in the 2019 NYFF, but I'm first seeing it now. It has Costa's typical exhausting austerity and beauty.

Costa is a Portuguese white director who has focused for two decades on Cape Verdean blacks either at home or in a Lisbon slum where they settled, Fontainhas, now demolished. They are people stoically reenacting scenes from their own lives, shot in many takes, hundreds of hours, and edited down. This time, it's Vitalina Varela, who was glimpsed in Horse Money, who retells on film her experience. She was abandoned by her husband, who left Cape Verde for Lisbon, saying he would come back with money. He never did. After waiting 25 years, Vitalina makes it to Lisbon to confront her husband, but he has just died, and it's three days after his funeral.

The characters are tight-lipped, the stories grim, minimal, mysterious. The dark, dramatically lit images are an all-important, paradoxical beauty that counter-balances the minimalism. An image jumped out at me: a hand reaching for the red tendrils of a beet. It follows a sequence of other shots, all black with colors set off as against velvet. The black-on-black, etched look reminds me of a unique, surreal artist I like, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright. According to White, Costa's dp Leonardo Simões projects light on selected spaces or faces using gobos-directed illumination. That explains the etched quality and the luminous color against the blackness. As I have written before, Costa aestheticizes poverty. The literally impoverished images sing in their limited context. Like the often very dark-printed photographs of Harlem-born Roy De Carava, the monochrome effect celebrates blackness.

I and others have spoken of Beckett in the context of Costa's films, but they're different. Beckett poeticizes and philosophizes despair, making a profound comic ritual of the human condition. Costa works with his limited gallery of real people, specialized in his patently artificial focus on impoverished Cape Verdeans.

The film unreels with ceremonial, epic slow solemnity. In it, VItalia follows the limited traces she finds of her deceased husband through Lisbon unearthing his hidden, illicit life. Solemn men, non-actors and some Costa regulars like Ventura, the focus of Colossal Youth, pose in zombie-like tableaux. Ventura plays a brooding, desperate priest ("No mass!" he yells), whose church is empty, just bills he must pay and scattering of chairs on a dirt floor. He presided at Joachim's, her husband's, funeral. She meets a younger man called Ntoni. Though warned by a woman when she arrived that she should leave, she stays in Lisbon, sticks in Joachim's shabby little house with its clanging steel door. She takes a shower there, plaster falling on her head and shocking her. In a long monologue, she remembers the ten-room house on Cape Verde she and he worked so hard on, and she completed, but he abandoned.

Sequences of high wind, heavy rain, come with a shock. Each of these scenes, or movements, is a slow ritual of long takes. In his L.A. Times review Justin Chang calls Costa "theatrical" and he is indeed. Strong prevailing moods (and the presence of Varela herself) help to override abrupt shifts and little sense of a plot. The look is unique, and one is drawn hypnotically into the darkness of the distinctive hidden world. As Kevin Lee concluded of Colossal Youth, I'm not convinced the "many fragments cohere into a masterful whole," but Costa's patient construction of a cinematic world for an ignored people continues to command respect.

Vitalina Varela, 124 mins., debuted at Locarno, winning Varela an acting award there and Vitalina Varela the Golden Leopard for best film. Nearly two dozen other festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, and the NYFF. Watched streaming thus released by Grasshopper Film Mar. 27, 2020. Metascore 86%.

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