Portugal (2019) Dir. Pedro Costa
Everyone handles grief in different ways but it is fair to say the circumstances behind the cause of this grief often dictates a lot of how we react to it. Learning something about the person you are mourning that shocks you to the core is a prime example.
Having moved from the ghettos of Lisbon for a better life in the islands Cape Verde, Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) returns home to confront her husband who left her forty years earlier. However, she learns that he died three days before her arrival and has been buried. Undeterred, Vitalina heads for her husband’s house where she learns he wasn’t the man she though he was.
Usually, I summarise the plot in two paragraphs but in this instance I am unable to offer further detail, for Vitalina Varela is one of those dense arthouse films where one needs a degree in symbolism to understand what is going on and telepathy to get what the director is trying to say. In other words it’s “MIB is a Thicko” time again!
Pedro Costa is not a name I am familiar with but evidently has his supporters among the arthouse/pseuds crowd onboard with the arcane, spartan, slow-paced style he applies to his slice-of-life dramas. It is clear from the opening shot Costa is a visual director, not in a special effects way, rather in the profundity of image composition making the mundane appear picturesque.
This is all well and good, but Costa makes it hard for the audience to decipher or follow the story that gradually reveals itself but only if one is patient enough to wait. I am happy to concede I will be in a minority about this, judging by the gushing reviews for this film and indeed Costa’s prior work, from those who found something I was simply unable to.
Vitalina doesn’t appear until some 15 minutes into the film, the time hitherto spent with men on a pitch black night tidying up what we soon learn is the deceased’s abode, a crumbling, shoddy hovel with minimal furnishings. Barely two lines of dialogue are spoken making these actions even more mysterious; even Vitalina’s arrival – again in the dark to avoid filming a whole airport – offers the barest exposition when she is offered condolences for her loss.
Whether this is a part of the culture or not, the next few scenes show a group of men all standing around inside the house. I don’t know if this is a chivalry thing ensuring Vitalina isn’t alone in her time of grief, or if they are protecting the house out of friendship for the husband. It felt a little weird to take in without explanation, but a lot of what occurs in this film seems steeped in the traditions of this community.
Quite often Vitalina sits in the dark and talks to her late husband as if he is still there, acting as a way to reveal their story – so it goes, they moved to Cape Verdes young and in love and started to build their own home brick by brick. A few months into their marriage, the husband suddenly returns to Lisbon with the promise of sending money or recalling Vitalina to join him. Neither happened, so Vitalina finishes building the house herself then, after 40 years, was able to afford the plane ticket home.
Now Vitalina is essentially a stranger all alone again, the only person she recognises being an elderly priest (Ventura). He held the service and buried her husband, even paid off his bills and debts believing he was a good man, but Vitalina is quick to correct him, having found evidence of her husband’s infidelity and other details about him. The priest himself is having a crisis of faith for some reason I couldn’t determine, explaining why his church is run down and no-one attends the services.
Because everyone speaks in a whisper whilst barely moving their mouths, if it wasn’t for the subtitles one wouldn’t be aware they were talking. When they are, it is akin to a Shakespearian soliloquy, right down to the poetic language. They stare into space with wide eyes as if they were possessed by voodoo, reminiscent of 1940s chiller I Walked With A Zombie, delivering their lines like being on stage talking to the audience.
Other scenes pass by in oneiric fashion, confusing the narrative as to what is real, set in the present day or a flashback, hampered by the lack of establishing such basics as character names, settings, and context in which these instances occur. In that sense, the ambiguity questions whether Vitalina is haunting her late husband’s home by being there in his wake, or if his other life is haunting Vitalina now he cannot answer to her for his actions.
Clearly it all makes sense to Costa and those who worship at his temple, but others like me are destined to wonder what it is all about. If there is a meaning to be read in all of this, it is buried deep in the darkness of the visuals, the sparse dialogue, and reticence by Costa to set the scene less obliquely. The cinematography makes it oddly bearable, the pin-sharp precision of the gravid chiaroscuro is haunting and bleak, with the cast lit just enough to be enigmatically visible.
Judging the performances is a little hard when they appear to do and say so little, but taking into account they are a non-professional cast, and how testing it must be to keep up the intensity and muted emotions of the characters, Vitalina Varela herself does an admirable job in that respect.
In all honesty I doubt I will be watching anymore films from Pedro Costa if they are all hard work like Vitalina Varela but I admire his unique visual identity and earthiness in his approach to his subjects. Not for me I’m afraid, but fair play if you are a fan.