Review by Sean Boelman
A spin-off of his 2014 film Horse Money, Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s newest movie Vitalina Varela is a meandering and thinly-plotted character study. Yet despite some interesting ideas and an abundance of beautiful imagery, Costa’s film is disappointingly incohesive due to its lack of narrative momentum.
The movie tells the story of a Cape Verdean woman in Lisbon as she copes with the loss of her husband. The thing about this film that is likely to challenge viewers the most is that it has very little dialogue. A majority of the movie is delivered visually, and even when there are lines spoken, those lines don’t have a whole lot of meaning to them.
As expected, Costa seems to be using this film to be making a statement about grief and closure, and while he thankfully never directly states it, the message he has to convey to the audience is made abundantly clear. As a result, the two hours of slow and contemplative visual poetry to which the audience is subjected by Costa becomes relatively excessive.
There are some very powerful moments sprinkled throughout the movie, but there is also a lot of mundanity that fills the space between these scenes. The foundations are in place for the film to have been a compelling character study had there been a greater sense of purpose and drive, but Costa gets too caught up in creating faux naturalism that he misses his opportunity.
Inspired by the real life of the film’s lead actress, the eponymous protagonist is certainly very intriguing. For someone who hasn’t seen this movie’s loose predecessor, sufficient context is given as to her background in one of the film’s rare bits of expositional dialogue. Still, with that being some of the only information given to the blind viewer, something else is required to create the necessary connection.
That something else is Varela’s unflinchingly naturalistic performance. Costa has become known for using non-actors in his movies, and that is still the case with Varela. Perhaps due to the immense connection she has with the character, she infuses the role with a mountain of emotion. Her believability as the character is the main thing that propels the film forward at all.
The cinematography of the movie is also frequently gorgeous. Shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film has a very unique visual style defined largely by darkness. Playing into the movie’s themes of death and grief, many shots of the film are obscured by shadows. At times, this does result in the movie becoming a bit hard to see, but it is still aesthetically-appealing nevertheless.
Director Pedro Costa has made an unusual film in Vitalina Varela and one that certainly will not appeal to everyone. Containing some interesting themes and an even more interesting visual style, the movie has a lot of merit but doesn’t quite work.
Vitalina Varela is now playing in theaters.