The aesthetics of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, whose Vitalina Verala will be screened at Sundance Film Festival 2020

Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa's latest film, Vitalina Varela, was screened at the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and it will play at Sundance, this month

Baradwaj Rangan January 23, 2020 11:49:51 IST
The aesthetics of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, whose Vitalina Verala will be screened at Sundance Film Festival 2020

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“I finally watched a Pedro Costa on the big screen” is a real thing for some film lovers. This happened to me last year at the Dharamsala International Film Festival, where I saw the Portuguese auteur’s latest film, Vitalina Varela. (It was also screened at the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and it will play at Sundance, this month.) If you’ve seen this filmmaker’s work – his first film, O Sangue, came out in 1989 – you’ll know about his rich imagery. He is a formalist of the first order. Still, I was not prepared for this film’s beauty on the big screen. 

Walking out, I found myself chatting with Gitanjali Rao, whose Bombay Rose was also playing at the festival. We were so overwhelmed, we could barely speak in entire sentences at first. But finally, we got around to talking about the painterliness of the visuals — a kind of moody portraiture, really — and the ethics of these aesthetic choices, given the circumstances. After all, Costa’s films are about the impoverished immigrants from the slums of Fontainhas, a now-vanished neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon.

But before the aesthetics, let’s see how Costa stumbled into Fontainhas. His second film, Casa de Lava (1994) – a reimagining of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – was about a nurse who accompanies a patient to his home in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, an island-cluster off the coast of Africa. When Costa returned to Lisbon after the on-location shoot, he discovered this neighbourhood filled with Cape Verdean immigrants, who’d come to make something of their lives and had met with disappointment after crushing disappointment. Costa’s interactions with this community gave rise to Ossos (1997), the first of what’s referred to as the Fontainhas Trilogy — the other two films being In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006).

His newest film is named after its (real-life) protagonist, a Cape Verdean woman who comes to Lisbon to collect the effects of her husband, who left 25 years ago to work in Portugal and died three days before she could reach him. The rest of Vitalina Varela follows this woman as she gets a sense of the life her husband led, through the things he’s left behind. The Toronto International Film Festival summary took special note of the aesthetics, calling the film “a series of burnished, painterly still lifes, rendering the nightmarish reality of the African diaspora and the harrowing legacy of racial and colonial violence as a dreamlike portrait of the living dead.” 

The aesthetics of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa whose Vitalina Verala will be screened at Sundance Film Festival 2020

A still from Vitalina Varela.

Costa said that at first, he wanted to record happier memories. But Vitalina wanted to stay in that moment of mourning. He told Film Comment: “She was going through the worst, most painful moment of her life and I was proposing for her to organize, to work out and reveal these terrible feelings and emotions, to turn all of it into a film… I told her: ‘Vitalina, your words, your pain will be in the film for all to see. They will be the film – aren’t you afraid?’ And she kept saying: ‘You must!’ I think we both wanted to exhume this horror, and the film would be the mourning.” Vitalina Varela may be the saddest, most beautiful ghost story you’ll see this year.

What lies at the root of Costa’s aesthetic? For an answer, we must go back to Ossos (which, again, features real people from Fontainhas) -- though it’s more about what the director didn’t do than what he did. Cyril Neyrat writes in the Criterion Collection essay: “[Ossos] was a traditional production, shot in 35 mm, with tracks, floodlights, and assistants... And the uneasiness grew, the feeling that a lie was being told, that an imbalance both moral and totally concrete was taking root on both sides of the camera... Too much squalor and despair in front of the camera, too much money, equipment, and wasted energy behind it. And too much light shining in the night of a neighborhood of manual laborers and cleaning women who got up at 5:00 a.m.”

“So one night, Costa decided to turn off the lights and pack up the extra equipment, in an attempt to diminish the shameful sense of invasion and indecency. His action was doubly groundbreaking because in what he did, Costa found his own light, that quality of darkness and nuance he would constantly hone from that night on, and because he understood that the cinema of tracking shots, assistants, producers, and lights was not his… What he wanted was to be alone in this neighborhood with these people he loved. To take his time, to find a rhythm and working method attuned to their space and their existence… Three years after this leap into the void, In Vanda’s Room became the result of this departure — in Costa’s work but also in the history of the cinema.”

Some of the most stunning images in Ossos are the simplest. The film is about a young girl who gives birth and hands the baby over to the father, who proves ridiculously incapable of caring for it. Some might label this “miserablist porn” — but there’s something more, something ineffable. There are hints of transcendence. A window cracked open just a little (and seen from outside the house), gives a glimpse of an ochre expanse of wall beyond. Or another window (this time, seen from the inside), at the very beginning, catches the sun and shines like a diamond – this light falls on the blue walls of the house. Costa told Film Comment, “I’ve never hidden the fact that one of the thousand reasons that attracted me to Fontainhas and that made me want to work there was an aesthetic one. In [Vitalina Varela], Vitalina’s door is also blue. They’re very fond of primary, bright colors. They like to paint their houses blue and yellow, green and red.”

Colossal Youth zooms in on an elderly Cape Verdean immigrant named Ventura (he returns in Vitalina Varela, and Vitalina herself was first seen in Horse Money) — and a memorable 10-minute-long single take shows Ventura chatting with his daughter in her house. By “single take”, I simply mean that the camera remains static, in a corner of the all-white room, lit by sunlight pouring through a window covered by an all-white curtain. It’s beautiful. It’s also organic. There’s nothing showy about the aesthetics. Instead of manufacturing beauty (with cinema trickery), Costa merely captures it. He told The Guardian, “Cinema is very deceitful, it needs so many tricks. These people I work with are very cheated – so I can’t cheat them with more tricks.”

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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