Pedro Costa’s films have always been marked by a deep empathy for the humans they depict — characters does not seem like the right word to describe them — and that’s no different in his latest, Vitalina Varela. Among the film’s many virtues is its ability to transfer its heart-in-throat compassion for its subject almost instantaneously. Costa’s imagery has often been this mesmerizing, but never has he shot faces like this before; every close-up on Varela has a heart-wrenching effect.
Vitalina Varela feels like the apotheosis of Costa’s work since he switched to shooting digitally and began creating collaborative truth/fiction hybrids in Lisbon’s slums. Costa’s ability to coax unexplainable beauty from the defects of MiniDV digital video in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth was astounding, but his work ascends to new heights in Vitalina Varela, hauntingly juxtaposing light and shadow in a seemingly unending series of striking tableaux. The tools may be enormously improved, but still, no one can make digital images look like Costa does.
Vitalina Varela expands on a moment from Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, in which a Cape Verdean woman tells the story of trying to visit her estranged husband in Portugal, but arriving three days after his funeral. Costa met the mourning Varela while shooting Horse Money and incorporated elements of her real story into the segment. By expanding it here, he gives a larger platform to the most penetrating performance he’s ever featured, in a film about grief, isolation and defiance in spite of disillusionment.
In a country that’s not her own, in the neighborhood where she knows no one, in the room where the husband who she barely knew after he left her decades ago lived, Varela turns her sadness into a steely determination to make a place for herself. Like all Costa films, there’s a tangible sense of space in Vitalina Varela, and the expressionistic lighting and tight camera set-ups communicate an almost suffocating heaviness. Scenes of Varela sitting alone are accompanied by a din of commotion, ambient sounds of conversation and activity teeming around her but not involving her. Interactions with her unfeeling new neighbors aren’t any less lonely.
Still, Varela perseveres, and she finds some commiseration with a priest who’s lost his congregation. Frequent collaborator and star of Horse Money and Colossal Youth Ventura plays the priest, in a departure from the version of himself he generally plays in Costa’s films. The priest is unable to restrain his despair like Varela, lamenting openly about the loss of his own faith.
For her part, Varela keeps her pain close to her chest, but the film externalizes this deeply internal feeling in a way few films ever have. There are two grace notes in Vitalina Varela in which she visualizes a glimpse of Cape Verde, the gleaming sun and natural beauty a stark contrast to every image surrounding them. Whether nostalgia for the past or a dream of a future with a husband that will never come to be, these moments only amplify Vitalina Varela’s grief. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a glimpse of a reality that could come to be.
Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080i transfer, which preserves the film’s 25fps format. The gulf between my original viewing of the film on streaming versus a re-watch on Blu-ray was wide, with Second Run’s impeccable transfer highlighting the hyper-reality of Costa’s images. The deep, rich black levels seen on this disc are essential to appreciating the film’s visual style, and a continued point in favor of discs over streaming, where black levels go to die a compressed, macroblocked death. Every other aspect of the transfer is just as impressive, from fine detail to clarity to sharpness. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is dynamic and immersive, creating a great sense of the dense neighborhood the film was shot in. A 2.0 LPCM stereo track is also included.
Extras include a brief introduction by critic Chris Fujiwara, an hour-plus interview with Costa from a March 2020 screening in London, and Companhia, a short film about Costa’s museum installation exhibit in Porto. The disc also includes a selection of trailers. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Daniel Kasman and another extensive interview with Costa, who never shies away from an opinion.