Like a moth to the light, Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa (“Colossal Youth“) always finds himself returning to the Fontainhas neighborhood that he holds so near and dear— a shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon that’s home to predominantly immigrant communities. Almost always using non-actors and blurring reality and fiction by drawing from their real lives, in “Vitalina Varela” the Portuguese filmmaker refracts and expands an episode from his previous feature “Horse Money,” wherein a Cape Verdean woman navigates her way through Lisbon, following the death of her husband. Trailing scanty physical traces her deceased husband left behind, she begins to unravel his secret, illicit life. It’s a film about grief and ghosts, essentially.
The film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and also played the New York Film Festival again. Costa’s films are slow-moving, hypnotic and strictly for arthouse audience taste, usually, but they are often deeply engrossing once you get into his unhurried rhythms about life on the margins. Here’s the official synopsis:
Portuguese director Pedro Costa has continually returned in his films to the Fontainhas neighborhood, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon that’s home to largely immigrant communities. Not merely a chronicler of the poor and dispossessed, Costa renders onscreen characters that exist somewhere between real and fictional, the living and the dead. His latest, a film of deeply concentrated beauty, stars nonprofessional actor Vitalina Varela in a truly remarkable performance. Reprising and expanding upon her haunted supporting role from Costa’s Horse Money, she plays a Cape Verdean woman who has come to Fontainhas for her husband’s funeral after being separated from him for decades due to economic circumstance, and despite her alienation begins to establish a new life there. The grief of the present and the ghosts of the past commingle in Costa’s ravishing chiaroscuro compositions, a film of shadow and whisper that might be the director’s most visually extraordinary work.
Grasshopper Films releases “Vitalina Varela” on February 21 at Film at Lincoln Center In New York. Presumably, the film will find its way to arthouses around the country after that.