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Review: By finding immense beauty in darkness, ‘Vitalina Varela’ connects with right now

Vitalina Varela as a fictionalized version of herself in “Vitalina Varela.”
Vitalina Varela plays a fictionalized version of herself in the movie that bears her name.
(Grasshopper Film)

Every so often, a shaft of daylight pierces the deep, spectral shadows of “Vitalina Varela,” the haunting and profoundly haunted new movie from the Portuguese director Pedro Costa. Your eyes drift toward every beam of light, every carefully placed pool of illumination in this grimly beautiful nightscape, the latest work by an artist who has found, in darkness, a remarkable new way of seeing. Toward the end of the movie, when all those shadows briefly lift and give way to pale blue skies, it’s as if Costa had cracked open a window, allowing a burst of warmth — it almost feels like hope — to penetrate this epic of perpetual night.

The hope doesn’t last for long, but then not much does. Little known in the U.S. but highly esteemed on the international festival circuit, the 61-year-old Costa is an austere cinematic realist, a poet of entropy and loss. Most of the features he’s made over the past few decades are set in Fontainhas, a Lisbon slum that is home to numerous immigrants from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde. Set at the juncture of fiction and documentary, art cinema and still portraiture, these films delve deep into lives we seldom see in movies and emerge with something bleak, mysterious and quietly monumental.

Costa’s latest, which is now available for streaming through Grasshopper Film, is a continuation and in some ways a refinement of his method. Vitalina Varela is a Cape Verdean woman in her 50s, here playing a close version of herself (as she did in her brief role in Costa’s 2014 film, “Horse Money”). We first see Vitalina descending from a plane in Lisbon, where she has come to bid farewell to Joaquim, the husband who abandoned her years ago without explanation. A woman greets her with condolences but tells her she has arrived three days too late for Joaquim’s burial. “Here in Portugal, there is nothing for you,” she says. “His house is not yours. Go home.”

Home has always been an elusive concept in Costa’s work, with its unblinking focus on the dispossessed, on lives displaced by poverty, addiction, abandonment and violence. And so it is with “Vitalina Varela,” a story about the pursuit of a home that never was and never will be. Ignoring the woman’s warning, Vitalina arrives at Joaquim’s house and settles in. She never says why she has chosen to stay in Lisbon rather than return to Cape Verde, but her steely resolution provides its own explanation. Wandering these dim, cramped rooms for the first time, she seems to be trying to absorb what remains of her husband’s presence while quietly asserting her own.

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If the narrative details are thin to nonexistent, the weary faces, slow-shuffling bodies and derelict environs are extraordinarily expressive. Varela is a mesmerizing screen presence, with a regal bearing and a reproachful glare that threatens to overpower the camera’s own unwavering gaze. (In a nod to her close collaboration with Costa, she won an acting award at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival, where “Vitalina Varela” itself won the Golden Leopard for best film.) You can sense her acute resentment of the man who married her 40 years ago and then fled, leaving her with an unfinished house and a lot of broken promises.

You see it especially in the stone-faced hospitality Vitalina extends to some of her husband’s friends, among them a homeless couple who drop by for a meal. Costa conveys nearly everything he needs to simply through his arrangement of the actors’ bodies: The man hungrily wolfs down his food in the foreground, chattering about Joaquim’s kindness and decency. His wife and Vitalina sit at a slight remove, not eating but quietly listening. Their wordless stares tell a rather different story.

Mononymous actor Ventura reflected in a mirror in “Vitalina Varela.”
The mononymous Ventura in the movie “Vitalina Varela.”
(Grasshopper Film)

As far removed as he may be from the commercial mainstream, Costa has cited John Ford as a much-loved influence, and also as a popular American filmmaker whose sturdy classicism sometimes tilted into abstraction. Certainly, in previous films such as “Ossos,” “In Vanda’s Room” and “Colossal Youth,” Costa has found his own version of Ford’s Monument Valley, which is to say a physical and cinematic landscape that could be mistaken for no other. The Fontainhas he shows us is a staggering ruin, a world of crumbling interiors, rotting beams and jagged staircases. Spend enough time in these rooms and they start to feel like metaphysical stages, like way stations between this world and the next.

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For all his commitment to realism (the French filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are another influence), Costa also trades in a degree of artifice that verges on the theatrical. This is cinema that pushes beyond the medium’s usual representational modes, beyond the observational qualities of neorealism or the interior states of psychological drama. Complex histories and unspoken emotions are distilled into a series of carefully composed tableaus, each one proceeding with slow, ceremonial deliberation. (The rich, painterly digital cinematography is by Leonardo Simões.) The undeniable intimacy that Costa achieves with his subjects is matched by an equally undeniable distance: Speaking in deliberate, drawn-out cadences and rarely making eye contact, these men and women exist at a remove from the audience and from each other.

Still, a connection of sorts is gradually forged in the second half, when Vitalina visits an empty church and encounters an ailing priest. He is played by Ventura, one of Costa’s key collaborators, whose lean frame and grave visage will be familiar to those who saw “Horse Money” and “Colossal Youth.” Here he becomes a kind of sorrowful companion for Vitalina, a man whose loss of faith and flock mirrors her own sense of abandonment. Their calm, contrapuntal suffering finds an anchor in Vitalina’s own Catholic beliefs, as signaled by the crucifix imagery that recurs throughout the movie, particularly a sublime recurring shot of the candles that have been lit in Joaquim’s memory. It’s another hopeful source of illumination, flickering unsteadily in the cold and the darkness.

“Vitalina Varela” isn’t easy, to say the least. See it under the right circumstances, as I did when it screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and its beauty, rigor and unforgettable images — a mournful procession, a bloodstained pillow, a woman’s bare feet descending the stairs — cast their own hypnotic spell. Those circumstances have of course temporarily ceased to exist with the nationwide closure of theaters, few of which, even at the best of times, are committed to exhibiting films as defiantly singular as this one. (Costa’s film was originally scheduled to screen this week at the Lumiere Music Hall in Beverly Hills.)

But while “Vitalina Varela” may have lost its own ideal venue, it isn’t inaccessible or unapproachable. You could call it demanding, I suppose, though mainly in the sense that, like most worthwhile art, it demands the commitment of your undivided attention. Having seen it a second time myself at home, I can attest that not only does the spell still take hold, but also that there is a strange solace, even refuge, to be found in its labyrinth of shadows. Dim the lights, cast your distractions aside and let Costa’s dark rooms merge with your own.

‘Vitalina Varela’
(In Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese with English subtitles)

(Not rated)

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Playing: Available March 27 at grasshopperfilm.com


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