The austere beauty of “Vitalina Varela” is in faces of its characters, the darkness that envelops a corner of Lisbon tourists rarely see.
It’s a somber, lyrical and relentlessly understated meditation on grief and a grudge, the story of a wife from the Cabo Verde Islands, a former Portuguese colony, who finally flies to Lisbon to join her husband. She’s been “waiting for my plane ticket for forty years,” Vitalina says (in Portuguese Kriol, with English subtitles).
She arrives three days after his burial, greeted at the airport by a striking Greek chorus of Capo Verdean expats who knew Joaquim. They are the airplane’s cleaning crew, who tell her “There is nothing for you in Portugal. Go home.”
In tenements of perpetual shadow, stark stucco walls without paint or decoration, she comes to the house where Joaquim lived, meets with and feeds mourners and starts to piece together the life that he had — a house with a leaky roof he never fixed, other women. If she’s looking for “closure,” Vitalina would never admit it.
“I won’t cry for no wretched man.”
Men who knew him talk of his dreams of fixing up the place for her arrival. But she knows better. When no one else is around, she growls her mistrust at the corpse she was not in time to verify. “Are you buried in the ground?”
Vitalina looks to the palsied priest (Ventura) for answers, but he has none. He has struggled to keep a hovel of a church going, to forgive himself for the sins of his past and failings on behalf of his flock. But “there is nothing sadder than a priest in this place…Nobody helps us.”
If Vitalina wants to speak with her husband, she must learn Portuguese, he insists. She can walk the dark, narrow streets and overgrown paths, looking for signs of him, for his body, but “there is nothing left for you here. The door has no lock.”
The screen compositions — almost all of them shrouded in darkness — are one perfect image after another. But the story is as spare and relentlessly shadowy as the images writer-director Pedro Costas and cinematographer Leonardo Simões conjure. Few characters are identified by name, relationships are sketchy, motives for any moment that isn’t Vitalina muttering in the dark about Joaquim’s formerly industrious nature abandoned for the skirt-chasing that brought him to Lisbon, are vague.
The film is a sort-of sequel to “Horse Money,” a Costas film in which Vitalina Varela also appeared and which is where we first learned of her sad married past — a husband who left for Lisbon and who never sent her the promised plane ticket to join him.
All of which tend to subsume the current film’s story and make “Vitalina Varela” inexcusably obscure. Beautiful as it is, it won’t be to every taste.
But there’s a richness in the title character (playing a fictionalized version of herself) turning this milieu bleak and forbidding with her brooding arrival. And there’s regret and recompense in the fleeting glimpses of daylight that arrive as she starts to assert her will — for a proper funeral — and remembers the poor but promising past they had back on those rocky, waterless islands off the coast of Senegal.
MPAA Rating: unrated, death and smoking images.
Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura
Credits: Directed by Pedro Costa, script by Pedro Costa and Vitalina Varela. A Grasshopper release.
Running time: 2:03