Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
Portugal, 2019. Optec. Screenplay by Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela. Cinematography by Leonardo Simoes. Produced by Abel Ribeiro Chaves. Film Editing by Vítor Carvalho, João Dias. National Society of Film Critics Awards 2020. Online Film Critics Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Pedro Costa reunites with the subject of an earlier documentary and has her play a sort of stylized version of herself, using her own name which also provides the film’s title. Vitalina Varela is a powerful presence who gets off a plane from Cape Verde and searches Lisbon for traces of her late husband’s life, whom she hadn’t seen since he moved to Portugal looking for work almost three decades earlier. As she looks through his run-down home and meets the priest at the local church, she puts pieces together, frequently communicating with his unseen presence and figuring out her own place in this new environment that she plans to remain in. Told in Costa’s usual method of lengthy slow takes, emphasizing deep, dark images that all feel like the kind of forced reality you see on a theatrical set, the film is less about its narrative and more about representing the emotional state of its main character, existing as she does in limbo between devotion to her late husband and a desire to move on, and between two different countries. There’s barely even any sunlight until the ending releases the viewer from the perpetual nightfall throughout the mostly wordless process, which successfully brings us into an intimacy with the character that makes her more than just the symbol that the film, which really is the last word in arthouse cinema, threatens to turn her into.