‘Vitalina Varela’ is a Masterclass in Minimalism

An art house film to its core, “Vitalina Varela” makes excellent use of visual storytelling to convey its narrative across cultures and across cultures and languages.

After her husband’s funeral, a woman is stranded in Lisbon miles away from her home in Cape Verde. The film Vitalina Varela submerges itself in themes of distance and immigrant communities. (Photo by Hassan Elgamal)

“Vitalina Varela” is a film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa starring nonprofessional actress Vitalina Varela, from whom the film takes its name. Varela portrays herself in a story inspired by her own life experience.

In “Vitalina Varela,” a Cape Verdean woman whose husband immigrated to Portugal 25 years earlier is finally able to afford travel to join him, only to discover that she has arrived three days after his death. What follows is an emotionally riveting experience as she slowly untangles the mystery of the life of the husband who abandoned her and comes to terms with her own past.

“Vitalina Varela” makes use of a nontraditional plot structure conveyed through unorthodox and yet immensely powerful cinematography that is heavy with long, motionless shots that have deep emotional aspects as they are allowed to breathe.

Although it is a subtitled film, “Vitalina Varela” could almost be enjoyed without them. It is dark and moody, lingering long on off-center shots in which characters are highlighted in chiaroscuro, strong contrasts between darkness and light. Characters’ body language, facial expressions and the vocal tones say more than any single line of dialogue. The filmmakers seem to know this. There is no music in “Vitalina Varela,” instead it relies entirely on the atmosphere and the silence of the environment, which makes moments in which that silence is broken much more powerful.

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As beautiful as it may be, “Vitalina Varela” is not for everyone. The film is long and slow. The story is told with extreme subtlety through sight and sound first and dialogue second.

The film’s emotional core lies in the characters’ relationships to the world they live in. Costa is careful to explore their emotional states, informed by their social status and past.

If a two-hour long European art house film with sparing dialogue and no music interests you, then “Vitalina Varela” is one of the better movies you could watch. Otherwise, save your money. That said, “Vitalina Varela” is a veritable work of art, and is well-deserving of high praise for its refreshingly minimalist approach to storytelling.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 print edition. An art house film to its core, “Vitalina Varela” makes excellent use of visual storytelling to convey its narrative across cultures and across cultures and languages.Email Nicholas Pabon at [email protected]

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