From Vitalina Varela (2019), dir. Pedro Costa (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Vitalina Varela, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s seventh feature, is the latest in a filmography that consistently builds on its predecessors both thematically and stylistically. Costa’s latest even takes place at the same time as his previous film, Horse Money, taking off from a scene where protagonist Ventura spoke with newly transplanted immigrant Vitalina Varela to present the woman’s story from her own perspective. Yet the film’s strongest connections with Costa’s earlier work lie in the manner in which it builds on a stylistic and thematic evolution that traces all the way back to the beginning of Costa’s career.

Costa’s first two features, 1989’s O Sangue and 1994’s Casa de Lava, are works of a puckish, preternaturally talented cinephile. The former, an elliptical family drama shot in lush 35mm black and white, shows off an  innate command of light and shadow that the director would explore more radically later in his career. The latter, meanwhile, reimagines Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde. Landscape photography of the island’s harsh volcanic soil recalls the Westerns of John Ford, while the contrast between the film’s white, Portuguese nurse (Inês de Medeiros) and her zombified Cape Verdean patient (Isaach de Bankolé), underlines lingering colonial tensions that further immisserate the island’s residents.

From Casa de Lava (1994), dir. Pedro Costa (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Costa followed up on the theme of Portugal’s post-colonial legacy by relocating to Fontainhas, a Lisbon housing project for a predominantly immigrant population. Ossos revolves around a young couple dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in morally ambiguous, unpredictable ways. Ossos marked the director’s growth as an elliptical storyteller, but the film was most notable for what occurred behind the scenes. During production, Costa was informed by locals that the film crew’s bright lights and noisy setups were keeping residents up at night, tiring workers who already worked grueling shifts of physical labor. Humbled by disrupting the very neighborhood he wished to depict honestly, Costa radically shifted gears. Abandoning film for digital cameras that required fewer people to operate and trading professional lighting rigs for manipulating available light with mirrors, the filmmaker reduced his footprint to a one-man operation for 2000’s In Vanda’s Room. Starring actual Fontainhas residents in a docudrama about a woman’s drug addiction, the film showed off an early mastery of digital possibility, exploiting the technology’s low-light abilities to craft images that looked like moving Vermeer paintings. The unclassifiable film mixes documentary with poetic arrangement, as in a scene of a character monologuing in their living room as construction workers begin to raze the housing project around them.

From Horse Money (2014), dir. Pedro Costa (courtesy Cinema Guild)

The eventual destruction of Fontainhas generates a second diaspora for the community’s residents, a seismic event that Costa tracks the aftershocks of in Colossal Youth and Horse Money. Both films follow Ventura, a local with a fatherly image among the other residents. Both films are effectively ghost stories, accounts of a place that no longer exists. In Colossal Youth, Ventura must contend with a present of the state replacing his neighborhood with soulless tower blocks while retreating into the shadows of the past to keep the community together. The latter film, meanwhile, exists outside of concrete time, depicting Ventura as trapped in his own failing memory, reliving the horrors that remain rooted in his mind. Costa’s most elaborate feature, it depicts a world of shadow in which glints of light become subjective portals into a collapsing mind breaking from the strain of trauma.

Vitalina Varela, too, is a ghost story, with much of Vitalina’s dialogue addressed to her dead husband and concerning his philandering ways and broken promises. Hers is a ghost story from the perspective of someone to whom the story has been told, a woman who arrives in Portugal to bury the husband who promised decades ago to send for her and discovers the many factors that prevented him staying true to his word. Costa’s compositions have rarely been more pointed: one shot cloaks migrants in shadow while a construction vest shimmers to speak to the way their labor is exploited while the people are neglected. Though for all the despair and angst of Costa’s work, there is always hope. Vanda the heroin addict is seen as a sober and relatively happy mother in Colossal Youth, and the addled Ventura who walks tremblingly through Costa’s last three films is rejuvenated by his interactions with the strong-willed, unbroken Vitalina. 

From Colossal Youth (2006), dir. Pedro Costa (courtesy Janus Films)

And when Vitalina Varela returns to Cape Verde for the first time in Costa’s cinema since the judgmental horror of Casa de Lava, it is with sincere appreciation of the island’s capacity to sustain life in spite of its harsh conditions. Costa’s latest ends in the sunlight, marking a belated emergence from the dark world of his recent work; in its final juxtaposition of community in both Cape Verde and immigrant neighborhoods in Lisbon, Vitalina Varela offers an indication that the director has come to admire the endurance of the actors he’s befriended as much as he laments their mistreatment.

Vitalina Varela (2019), dir. Pedro Costa, will screen on October 6 & 9 at Film at Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.  

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slant Magazine, MTV News, and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online...