In the sumptuous darkness of night on the outskirts of Lisbon, people walk together in a procession. Bodies carry crosses and depictions of saints above their heads. The eponymous haunted heroine, Vitalina Varela, suddenly appears – a fifty-five-year-old woman from the islands of Santiago, Cape Verde – late for Joaquim’s funeral, her beloved husband. After Joaquim immigrated to work as a bricklayer, Vitalina’s life became punctured by promises of sensuality, roof leakages, houses being built like relationships. Vitalina leans, eyes half-open, on the door where stands a calendar, the month Janeiro 2005, illustrated by an elegant nude of a woman. A little further stands a picture of Vitalina in a wedding dress, the white veil sprawling on the floor unfolds outside the frame like a shroud. Through the skin of the walls, Vitalina finds the reminiscence of her husband, after having waited twenty-five years for a plane ticket to visit him. Master film-maker Pedro Costa continually returns to the topic of immigrant communities in Portugal. His best known films, In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) and Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha, 2006) brought attention to his cinema and recognition as one of the most important film-makers working today. Costa has developed a uniquely intimate process: one of total freedom in which films can take years to complete. His latest production Vitalina Varela (2019) is an epic home movie, a heart-breaking message from another time illuminated by a remarkable performance from its star, Vitalina Varela.
Gustavo Beck: How did you first meet Vitalina and why did you feel she was the film’s protagonist?
Pedro Costa: It was during the shooting of Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro, 2014). As always, I don’t have very strict shooting plans and can completely change direction. I was looking for some houses for a scene, and it was difficult to find a Cape Verdean one. I searched for something a little reminiscent of the houses I first encountered when I entered those neighbourhoods, in Bairro das Fontainhas. Someone told me about a house that had become abandoned as the owner died some days before. When we went to see it, the door opened, and there she was: Vitalina. She was in the deepest state of mourning – a very impressive appearance. She introduced herself as the owner’s widow and said that she had arrived a few days ago. I realised she only spoke Creole and I started talking to her – I speak Creole. She was a complete foreigner to the neighbourhood, to Portugal, to everything. First, I asked her if I could film inside the house to which she immediately said yes. Then, gradually, over the next days, I invited her to come into the shoot, into the image I was going to make of this house. Little by little, I invited her to follow the shootings more. I think that through the image she saw a chance to leave as she was locked in there. I think she felt the chance to take a little breath. I did this until I saw – or felt – that a character from a film could grow or be born out of her presence. In that film, she is an apparition, something a bit supernatural. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied. Not with the work she did, which was always very good, vulnerable and rigorous too. I wanted more. To work more and to try out more. Very quickly she understood what is difficult, hard and tiring about cinema and was not afraid of it. On the other hand, she also gave everything: the dialogue, her story and her interior. This is rare. All in all, it was a kind of visit. I thought that maybe she could move from visitor to something more permanent and then, tell her story.
‘Write letters to him as you would now,’ I asked, and after, ‘Write a letter from him to you, where he is now.’
Gustavo: How did you intertwine her personal story with the fictional elements you wished to explore in the film’s initial narrative?
Pedro: Usually, I start shooting a short passage that is relatively simple. We did some tests and trials as we have conversations in which the actor tells me things and makes proposals. I asked her to write letters with pen and paper, as it was a very common practice between lovers when the husband immigrated to Portugal to work while the wife stayed in Cape Verde with the chilren. During the late 70s and early 80s, letters were very common, today it seems extravagant. Vitalina wrote many letters. Apparently, her husband only wrote her once. I asked her to rewrite the letters she wrote him and that one letter he wrote her. Then, we went even further: ‘Write letters to him as you would now,’ I asked, and after, ‘Write a letter from him to you, where he is now.’ I tried to get her to go a little beyond just telling the story of her life, to get her to imagine him writing something from where he is. That is what I read.
The letter was, as you can imagine, quite surprising. This is what you often hear in the film’s monologues. There is a lot of reckoning. The letters she wrote while he was alive, the documentary part, are also in the film and not that surprising, with lines like, ‘I bought a stove already, and a bed and a blanket.’ The other letters, the ones I asked for, are much darker. It’s a reckoning, him with her and her with him. And this I mixed later in the film; that is, there are very violent things she says that come from these writings. This helped her to get rid of some of the truth, or to move beyond without betraying anything. That’s what she wanted to say and probably, what he wanted to say. Because she wrote it. She imagined what he would say to her. I don’t know if she ever imagined this before, but the film may have allowed for it. The process of the movie was like a ritual part her own mourning path.
Gustavo: Yes, there is a strong and sensual aesthetics of healing present in the film and it gave me a certain feeling of exorcism.
Pedro: Very well said, exorcism. There are definitely some scenes that go through that. I don’t know if it is funny or curious that in the film you actually see the funeral ceremonies, the rituals, which are very African. Burial is one thing, but the ceremony is much more charged and impressive. In our culture, it is a disposable thing. There is the crying, singing and music, the body that one has to touch sometimes. Then, there is the ceremony, the time, the week of mourning, altar, candles and food. That altar appears in the film several times. Vitalina made the gesture of lighting up candles, placing pictures of Joaquim, flowers and a Christian cross on a table for the film and herself at the same time. It is as if the film was used to recreate and re-enact this moment that she could not live through another ceremony, which is the cinema. There is another ceremony, which I like. I don’t like the spontaneity thing, to catch the moment and the reality. It’s nothing like that. It never was.
Gustavo: Did Vitalina know what kind of process she was getting involved in? Did she get to watch your previous films?
Pedro: Yes. I made sure she at least saw Down to Earth (Casa de Lava, 1994) because, well, the Cape Verde islands are a landscape Vitalina knows. She liked it so much – not for the virtues of the film of course but because there is this naïve feeling about seeing places you know in a film, and even recognising people you think you might have met.
There is a kind of immediate solidarity, which is something that cinema had done a lot and now lost, or is losing it. When she sees images of herself, I felt she really liked them. I always enjoy when actors see or recognise a part of themselves. Today there is no longer that thing of seeing the so-called film rushes. I like when there’s a monitor with what’s going on. Everyone sees it; it is impossible not to see it. And sometimes we recorded it only for Vitalina to see, or so that we could see her watching it. Nothing is hidden. I think it is good that actors take part in our work, and are involved in the technical team almost and are much more than just actors. Neither she nor any of the people I work with have a relationship with films, none. And I’m not even talking about acting. They simply never see films. Instead, they continuously watch television. Television is an open tap that pours out everything.
Gustavo: Your process is very intimate. How did the work evolve with Vitalina on set?
Pedro: It strongly depends on the person. Although there are always a lot of takes, because it’s necessary to find almost everything, not just what has to do with the person. It’s about sound, light, objects, the movement of people and even things, if they are there. On the other hand, I think actors always need a lot of takes, many times to find themselves. To find ‘a matter of work.’ I would hardly be afraid to say that I think they work a lot more than most actors, in a way. Actors tend to think they find their role quicker and convince the director of it. That’s something none of these people I work with try to do with me. The days go by searching for something, and the days can pass. We can abandon a shot or a scene, we move on to something else, and then come back in another way. Or abandon it completely, even. This process has to do with a very classic and conventional way of rehearsing, which always attracts me. For instance, ‘In this shot or this sequence Vitalina talks about the construction of her husband’s house in Cape Verde.’ We start from scratch. I select what is most interesting, reducing it, always to the max because when we tell stuff it is always gigantic. I make it interesting and clear or obscure when needed. When we come to a version that Vitalina already has in mind, we start to repeat. Through repetition, or rehearsal – repetition in French is rehearsal – changes appear naturally. As Vitalina says something for the fiftieth time, like, ‘The much better house,’ then she will eventually say: ‘The incomparable house.’ Then we get to where we wanted to be. And word appears. It is her work. You reduce to reach that wanted richness.
Gustavo: Perhaps you can talk about the tone you seek in these dialogues, and the way they alter the pace of the film.
Pedro: I mainly follow the tone, people’s timing. It’s not that I’m passive, but standing in front of a camera, there is a power dynamic at stake that is a bit silly: they are in charge. Vitalina has her own rhythms and movements. I don’t want to condition or betray the aura of an actor during filming.
Everything has to be conditioned, but at a later stage. Then, there’s the fire, and the progress of the film. You use a little imagination. You feel things and try to go on building something. However, I also like to follow the actors, so that they can be themselves in that sense.
Gustavo: How would you describe Vitalina’s personality?
Pedro: Vitalina is a relatively calm, reflective woman. She likes to think of the words she is going to say, and acts with candour. I try to adapt a little to each person, and then try to find a kind of unity in all these rhythms. Unity exists naturally I think. They do not have the vices or tricks of professional actors – because they have none at all – or more primitives ones. They are not looking for anything other than themselves. These are people who do not have this need or desire. In cinema, seduction is very important. Every person who faces a camera has a need to seduce. They can get into a relatively perverse and artificial game with themselves and others. With the work of rehearsing and working with people outside of the cinema industry, there is no urge to seduce. What I film are the movements of Vitalina and other people.
In this film, the tone was what we were talking about when you mentioned exorcism. It is not far away. If it was a musical, for example, the tone I’d choose would be something close to that of an elegy. I do not mean requiem, which is something else. The elegy comes a little later, it is a memory of the requiem. I think that is the tone, something a little suspended between two moments. Her release from something, the pity and the moment of arrival and liberation. So it is a moment of shadow.
It is a dark moment of fear, suffering, anguish and fright. The space takes you into an experience of time and feeling…
Gustavo: The house has a very strong physical and emotional presence in the film. Why did you choose this location?
Pedro: The house was in ruins. It was closed and dark, with the smell of death – everything that is filmed before her arrival. I never saw the bloody blanket, the puke on the floor, the death. The men you see in the film, they cleaned before we arrived. Those fumes, the liberation, the spiritual cleaning of the house, when we entered that house was felt with a heavy heart. Everyone talks about the light, but it had a very dark and dense atmosphere, which is a little transfigured in the film. That is the magic of cinema. I don’t think it’s something to worry about, it really gives an idea of time. Through what we see in the film, the house, Vitalina’s experience and the way she goes through the divisions, we can understand how she experiences time. It is a dark moment of fear, suffering, anguish and fright.
The space takes you into an experience of time and feeling. The conditions concern how people live, the slums, the suburbs or the ghettos. The beginning starts with the basic condition: how to survive. There are no chandeliers, paintings or great arrangements. It’s a house of survival, a crate, a cube, a coffin.
Man is only man with a woman. It is the woman who makes the man,’ she says…
Gustavo: Perhaps you can speak to the relationship between the dark interior of the house and the bright light of Cape Verde.
Pedro: At some point in shooting it seemed that it would be too easy to finish the film, that it was going to where it pointed to initially. Everything we were filming, all the scenes, plans, seemed to point to a destination: Vitalina remaining in the shut house. And ultimately, going out into the neighbourhood or alley, which for me, would be almost the same as staying in the house. It was complacent, easy because some of my fellow film-makers, not many, but two or three more pessimistic and contemporary ones, always thought that ‘the film’ was inside, in a way. I always thought this was too easy, and something else was needed. I started to get angry with myself with what was defined. Not that it was written, but everything seemed to point to it. Gradually, I understood that it would be necessary to go back to the origins: how it all started, how Vitalina got into this. That it was about not what comes next.
The story she tells begins with being with someone: ‘Man is only man with a woman. It is the woman who makes the man,’ she says. This is a conviction one has out of aloneness, necessity or even fatality. She started dating him in her teens. So that was it. To show her with him, maybe building the house. That came to me when she went up to fix her own rotten old roof. In the first rehearsals there was no wind, we just saw how it worked. Vitalina knew what she was supposed to do, as she did it thousands of times in Cova da Moura whenever there was wind and the roof needed fixing. We were curious to see her movements. She often naturally made a gesture with her hand, staring into the distance. This was because of the sun, the shadow and the horizon. From the roof of the house, you can see all of Lisbon. When she did this, I said let’s shoot what she’s staring at because there’s a way out. We can cut and see nothing more, but there must be something. Then, I remembered that she could see herself at the beginning of her life. And that’s sort of what we started trying to build. She gradually sees herself younger. She is in a place that is already very strange because there is a mountain. And you leave a house, and then at the end you come back to that house, and realise that this house is under construction, that you can remember the house. But it works, I think. That is to say, it has some effectiveness because I have had many questions regarding this plan. It was done very quickly; it could not be done if not. We had five days in Cape Verde. We arrived, filmed, and left.
Gustavo: Although you work with all the freedom you allow yourself, do you feel cloistered within a style or theme, prevented from exploring other genres and stories?
Pedro: Yes, of course. But if you don’t ask me about it, I’m not going to bring it up. It isn’t a pleasant thing to say. There are film-makers – I don’t even say contemporaries because it’s even harder and I don’t compare myself to them – who are dead and very dead, very striking and remarkable, who could be seen as having chosen to live almost in a prison. It’s like Vitalina. Obviously, it can become very comfortable. There is a great danger in being trapped in this comfort. You have the enclosure. Or like the 19th century Portugues writer Camilo Castelo Branco, who, imprisoned his whole life, almost gives the idea that he wants to be there. There is a phrase from him that I always remember: ‘Only a few are built for a certain enclosure.’ That is, some are capable of that. But I feel it, and I feel the danger of it, and I think about it, and I have to think a lot more.
What I was saying about the end has to do with this. These are small gestures, movements, not giving in to that temptation to leave Vitalina enclosed, which seems to me to be the most obvious thing – a barbarity – in that kind of narrative, today, within current cinema, in the environment we are in. It is not daring, courageous. I do not remember flying to Cape Verde, only filming the house. I felt clearly: ‘This is the only shot that maybe I won’t know how to do.’ I felt it clearly. I felt the fear of that and it was a different fear, with other constraints, parameters and geometry. Will I know how to do this? Is this going to be up to the rest of the filming in Lisbon? And then you say, ‘But the rest is something you know how to do, so here you really have to know how to do it.’ So maybe this all makes sense in the end. That is, break all of that a little bit. It’s something I have to think about. Sometimes complacency or satisfaction in our prison is terrible. There are classic film-makers, I will not name names, from whom what I see is not suffering, because perhaps they have suffered nothing, not even thought about it, nor should they have to. That is up to us.