‘Vitalina Varela’ Forms an Extraordinary Picture of Grief

In a collaboration by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa and the film’s writer/eponymous star, Vitalina Varela tells the story of a woman who arrives in Lisbon after the death of her husband, and subsequently tries to disentangle the history of his life there without her. Often poetic and sometimes opaque, this film forms an extraordinary picture of grief. (AEL: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

Vitalina Varela’s visuals are highly stylized. From the opening moments, the viewer’s eyes begin to ache with trying to see. We see people going in and out of houses and down alleys, laying out laundry in fresh air, but there is no daylight. The close indoor spaces are even more shadowy and quiet. Some men clean out a house, removing bloody sheets, from which we infer that someone has died.

When we are introduced to our heroine, she is stepping off a plane. Some women greet her, telling her she’s “too late,” her husband is dead and the funeral ceremony is over. This is a rare moment of dialogue in the film’s first act, and with few other context clues, its details have to carry significant weight as to the protagonist’s situation going forward.

For what is missing in contextual clarity, the titular protagonist “Vitalina Varela” (named for the actress who plays her) has no dearth of emotional range. Over days, she moves slowly through her late husband’s silent rooms, looking at his things. She talks to him, sitting in the bathroom, sitting in his bed, asking him in many different ways why he left in the way he did, why he never asked her to come with him. Her grief is so compelling that it is often painful to watch.

We learn that Varela and her husband are from Cape Verde. Her husband left twenty-five years ago to move to Lisbon for work, and Varela assumed she would join him, but he never sent for her. Now, she attempts to reassemble his life, but also struggles with her own identity in this new place, and in the colonial tracings by which this place took her husband from her and eventually destroyed him.

Sometimes her grief veers sharply into anger or fear. Storms rattle the roof, which Varela’s husband never repaired, even knowing “how afraid” Varela can get. Varela sometimes shouts into the silence, angry with her husband for leaving her with so little to go on.

Varela meets a priest, unnamed but played by an actor named Ventura. She finds him sitting in an empty church room, among rows of folding chairs where his congregation would once have sat. Over a series of monologues and conversations, we find out that the priest is himself suffering from a sense of loss and doubt, represented viscerally by a persistent tick in his left hand.

The priest gives Varela hints about how she can heal, but they feel as cryptic and halted as his own spiritual state. “The dead only speak Portuguese,” he says, perhaps suggesting that Varela’s grief cannot progress unless she moves toward building her own life in Lisbon.

Other neighbors, presumed friends of Varela’s husband, visit his former home. They talk to Varela about her husband, and through them she tries to put together the pieces of his life in Portugal without her.

The film is co-written by its star and fictionalized protagonist alongside Portuguese director and co-writer Pedro Costa. It is Varela’s story, her immigrant history, her mourning and trauma.

The movie’s production design and cinematography work well with this story of mystery and grief. Often, we feel as if we are in a mine, or maybe moving through spotlighted dollhouse rooms, everything too delicate and dim to be real. We spend prolonged moments hovering on extraordinary framings of the characters’ faces and lounging positions in bedrooms or in church. People even move slowly, as if in a dream.

In many ways, Vitalina Varela feels more like collage than narrative. In an overlaying series of images and monologues, we put together a picture of grief, without a strong sense of time or personal background. But maybe this sense of suspension reflects the experience of Varela herself. Maybe she feels frozen without the clarity of the funeral ceremony she missed. After all, when a funeral ceremony does finally happen, this time for a neighbor in Lisbon, daylight appears, the action speeds up, and Varela begins long-awaited repairs on her roof. Time is moving again.

© Amelie Lasker (02/27/2020) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Vitalina Varela as herself.

Middle Photo: Ventura as the priest.

Bottom Photo: Ventura and Varela.

Photo Credits: Grasshopper Film

Q: Does Vitalina Varela pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?


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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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