Film Review: Vitalina Varela (2019)


Director Pedro Costa

Cinematography Leonardo Simoes 

Language Portuguese

The film opens in an immigrant area of Lisbon. Two men are discussing the death of their friend. The film opens in darkness and half light. This continues throughout the film. The cinematography is very theatrical. Characters wait Godot-esque in doorways, discordant sound tracks play from left and right; chickens, music, children, people arguing. The mood is morbid and mordant.

The mans wife Varela arrives from Cape Verde. Apparently she has waited 40 years to stump up the price of an airline ticket. At first when I knew the film was about an African community in Portugal I assumed that it would be Angolans or Mozambiqueans. The Cape Verde factor had me slightly scrambling in my mind to remember where Cape Verde was and what was the difference between Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. One of the main reasons I go to the cinema is to see different worlds, because I find it hard to travel in real life so I was interested to see this slice of life of Cape Verde people. Although in the film the real world was a stage set.

Varela steps off the aeroplane in bare and deformed feet. The cleaners for the airline company form a chorus warning her there is nothing for her in Portugal but it has taken her 40 years to get here and now she is going to stay.

She has missed her husbands death but is in time to join other mourners in candle lit devotion. 

The mood of the film is sombre, shadowy. Varela apparently has a handsome house back in Cape Verde and resents African’s outsider status in Portugal. The Cape Verde community live in desperate poverty, in a closed loop where aside from the physical privation nothing seems to happen. Varela is pissed off that her husband came to Portugal chasing loose women and building a ramshackle house and practising becoming a drunk (apparently as all Cape Verde men do, according to her)

Quite why Varela doesn’t go back to Cape Verde is not explained. Perhaps she would need to save another 40 years for the return trip. Something about her shows however that she is determined and knows her own mind and probably could actually return home if she really wanted to but she continues to hang around in Lisbon feeling pissed off. Wallowing.

After that I don’t know what happened because I walked out. There was 

 a discussion with a priest which didn’t really shed much light. 

To be honest the lighting was probably considered arty but I just found it awful after a while. I could barely see what was going on. It was like a Finnegan’s Wake nightmare. Varela just seemed to be in a downward spiral of misery when In fact you felt she was enough of a master of her own destiny that she could be enjoying herself. 

I’m guessing the script probably come from a stage play and would work better as such. The Lisbon slum is an imagined Lisbon slum and you don’t break out into the wider city. It’s a construct. In fact the Cape Verde enclave could be anywhere in the world. 

There is probably a lot about African culture I am not picking up on.

It was interesting to see a very different community from my own and sometimes the setting and lighting was imaginative. The lead actress had a very woeful expressive face and she certainly conveyed force of personality but it was as though her gusto was blowing into a cul de sac. 

** two stars mainly for cultural quirkiness. 

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