From Vitalina Varela (all images courtesy Grasshopper Film)

One of the greatest but less-appreciated filmmakers of the modern age, Pedro Costa has developed both a distinctive visual style, based in meticulous use of shadow and minutely composed frames, and a unique form of reality-based collaboration with his performers. The Portuguese director’s 2014 feature Horse Money, an oneiric odyssey through bureaucracy and memory, was one of Hyperallergic’s top films of the 2010s.

Often working with non-actors and incorporating elements of their real lives into his stories, Costa does not film scripts in any traditional way; rather, he finds his movies in concert with his subjects. He made numerous films in Fontainhas, a now-demolished neighborhood of Lisbon where many impoverished and immigrant residents lived. One such immigrant, Vitalina Varela, is the lead and namesake of Costa’s newest film. Varela does not quite play “herself,” as a woman coming from Cape Verde to Portugal to join her husband, only to find that he has just died, but something similar did indeed happen to her, and the film incorporates pieces of her life.

Hyperallergic spoke to Costa about Vitalina Varela and his unusual production methods. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


H: You write these films in collaboration with your performers. Is that process in place from the beginning, or do you bring in any ideas you have before it starts?

PC: I have a general idea. It’s not a beginning and an end … let’s say in the case of this film, the idea was just the arrival. Vitalina arrives in Lisbon and goes to this place where her husband lived. Her husband is buried, she’s late for a funeral. And then she searches, discovers, hides herself, meets people. That’s all. That was the general idea. For Horse Money, I had the central scene of [the protagonist] Ventura enclosed in an elevator with a strange figure, and then we worked around that.

H: When Vitalina came to Portugal after her husband’s death, did she always intend to stay? Did your interaction with her have any influence on her plans?

PC: I don’t think so. I think that’s the one of the more difficult, or problematic questions, one to approach very carefully. It’s a territory full of silence and expectation, doubt.

I think Vitalina wanted to, a little bit, run away from certain things in her past life, and also — and this may sound strange — and also be a little bit alone. This woman was never alone in her life. Never. She was born into a very big family and worked the fields in a village. Sometimes I think she wanted to be alone and away for a while. And I think she wanted to more or less rebuild her life. Maybe bring over her children, she has a son and daughter. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. These kinds of things frighten me a little bit, because … everything that goes unsaid informs certain moments in the film.

From Vitalina Varela

H: That’s a very big part of the immigrant experience, that sort of insularity that comes from having a community and then being more alone, or having to form a different kind of community. It’s something that’s played a large role in many of your films. Is that element something you’re actively thinking about?

PC: I’ve never thought about that. That’s a good point. Maybe. Who knows? Certainly, that holds true for women. There’s a segment in Sans Soleil in Cabo Verde. [Director Chris] Marker says the Cape Verdeans are people of waiting, especially the women. Men go and women stay behind and face the sea like sentinels. ‘A people of sentinels,’ that’s his phrase. That was my first impression when I went there the first time, before I shot Casa de Lava, a long time ago — the solitude of the women. The kind of sadness or melancholy feeling of waiting of longing.

H: You say you hadn’t thought about this element. Is your thematic exploration and expression more instinctual? I’ve read other interviews that you prefer to leave meaning to viewers to interpret or discuss. Obviously, the technical aspects have a ton of planning put into them.

PC: Yeah, but also, perhaps more than certain filmmakers — perhaps I’m wrong or being a little bit pretentious — I tend to have this obsession with a balance between what’s in front of and behind the camera. So we’re talking about ideas, economy, every art, everything you can think of. I depend on reality. I depend on society at that moment. I depend especially on the actors, because they are the screenwriters. I depend on their health. I depend on their humor, because we tend not to sign conventional contracts; it’s more based on trust.

I wouldn’t say it’s an intellectual work. I was a student of history, I had to memorize some things for a exam or something, but the idea was to study and then research or go around places and see things and hear things and read things. It’s a little bit the same here. It depends on every relation. In the case of Vitalina, it was the meeting of two sensibilities, hers and mine. What she’s telling me, what she’s proposing, I hear, collect. It interests me. I think it could make a good scene, an interesting moment. I organize, I concentrate or reduce a lot through a sort of permanent rehearsal on film, which is also something that not a lot of filmmakers do. I’ve been doing that since I’ve been doing digital. It’s a way of seeing what we want to do. All the rehearsals, all the work we do, the preliminary talk or just small talk, leads up to a kind of ‘Yeah why not?’ moment. As soon as that happens, I record. I like that, the ritual of the take.

There’s the truthful observation by Godard that you have to see what you shoot. So I write not that much. It’s a very verbal work with the actors. We take notes, if I write something, if Vitalina writes something — and she had to write two or three things, like letters. And then from Take 1 to 2 to 30, content and form begin to work and mingle, and finally something is concentrating in a good take or a good scene. It’s a bit different from a lot of work done in cinema. In a way it’s closer to theater; it’s just that we don’t have a play at the end.

H: I’ve read you call this a sort of ‘communist’ form of filmmaking in another interview.

PC: I was trying to define our economy, our production, how we had to shoot in that place, in those conditions, with that community. I thought I had to abandon a lot of things. And it was not a sacrifice at all, I think I gained a lot from it. What I proposed was to bring a sort of equality to the extremes and the hierarchy that filmmaking almost depends on. It would be wrong there. There are certain things you cannot do in those places. A crane, or a truck with heavy lights, wouldn’t fit into [Fontainhas]. Lighting an alley with tons of kilowatts of light would be an obstacle, a nuisance, an alien thing in that neighborhood. We should think about the means and the production to fit a place; to be in a certain kind of balance, again. So that’s what I call a little bit of communism. Cinema shouldn’t be this conquering machine or force.

H: So it’s relying less on a hierarchy within the production, and being conscious of the conditions of the places in which you shoot?

PC: Sure, and adopting rules and laws and even certain salaries. You have to have a little bit more to do with the reality of things. Of course, the reason behind all of this is that I don’t have much money. And of course, all the places that have attempted socialism, in the beginning they were also very poor. They all began with the leftovers of war or revolution. And this approach has helped a lot, because there’s nothing really hidden. I mean, we’re not there to rob anyway, and we cannot give anyone much money or comfort. It’s just work.

Now while I’m preparing and shooting my films, the actors and crew know what it is, what I do. But in the beginning I had this double job, to do the film and at the same time a bit of pedagogical work, arguing ‘This can be made.’ This form of cinema can be made in this place, and can be made with less money. It’s as possible and as strong as anything else.

From Vitalina Varela

H: To get the kind of shots you create, you work with mirrors a lot to get the lighting correct, and it’s a very time-intensive process. It results in these very beautiful, striking images. Do you find these images the same way you find your stories? Do you experiment with each shot, is that also rehearsed as you make it?

PC: Yes, exactly as you say. There was one long shot that was difficult for Vitalina, for me, for lights, sound, everyone. It’s the scene where Vitalina is in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, and she talks. Alone. She talks for four minutes, a long monologue. She talks about the past in Cabo Verde, her house.

This is a scene we approach like any other. While she concentrates on all the ideas she has and the words, I’m also trying to imagine how we could light this scene. We started lighting with a lot of things and tried one side, tried the other side, cut the light with different mirrors. Days of work — and it can be more than days, we can be on a shot for a week, two weeks, if it deserves our attention. It’s no problem, as we don’t have that many limitations. The rehearsal, I always say the actors need it because they don’t have the experience, but neither do we, so we also need it.

When Vitalina got to the final form of her monologue, I had this idea that we could maybe just force a little bit of light with a blind, the very intense reflection of sun or daylight, right behind her head. And this way, you would be struggling a bit to see her, to see her eyes. She is there, but there’s this intensity of white sun that blinds the audience and forces them just to understand what she says. So ultimately we arrived at a very simple idea. Sometimes we go with that kind of thing.

Vitalina Varela is now in limited release. It is playing in New York at Film at Lincoln Center (165 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.