• Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela is one of the most visually accomplished films of the of the 2010’s.
  • With Horse Money in 2014 he shifted to higher definition video photography (Vitalina is pristine – immaculately crisp), this sort of sullen surrealism and structured control in the performances and mise-en-scene. These are drastic changes from the fuzzy-pixelated, observed-reality docudrama style of In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth. The subject (immigrants from Cape Verde to Lisbon- the Fontainas section– immense suffering and poverty) is the same, but the approach is very different. Vitalina Varela goes even farther than Horse Money in design and breathtaking beauty—truly a collection of cinematic paintings.

95% of the film is shot in total darkness, perpetual nighttime

Costa’s trademark use of black and shadow– (past even the work of Gordon Willis and Fincher) a specific look with a spotlight to give a specific effect—stairs, alleys, sewers, even puddles- Tarkovsky

  • Starts with an elegant stark dark alley—a fixed camera holds on these grey walls with a graveyard above as mourners in black dress pass in a line (almost like zombies- I’ve noted Dreyer’s Vampyr feels like an important text to Costa)
  • Costa’s work here is an elegy– Vitalina Varela (a character in Horse Money) arrives – it is her husband that has passed
  • Distressed wallpaper, dilapidated buildings, graffiti—it is all meticulously calculated and detailed. Again, this is no longer a docudrama (though characters still carry their own name)—this is Roy Andersson (there is even a man distraught on the ground in pain posing), Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ming-liang Tsai
  • A gorgeous composition at the 12-minute mark with the airline workers staggered throughout the frame as Vitalina Varela arrives in Portugal – this is the first real dialogue in the film (characters are really speaking to themselves when they do speak)—13-minutes in the title drops.

Vitalina is shot in the mirror – a great frame held by Costa for 3-minutes

40-50 of these rigidly composed frames- thematically and tonally consistent

Costa continues his ascent from Horse Money which was his strongest work to date in 2014 — Vitalina Varela is vastly superior


Jaw-dropping standout arrangements are numerous—just one to highlight at the 80-minute mark the circle object obstructing Ventura’s face

  • The only time Costa uses daylight is in the flashbacks (memory and regret are a big part of both this film and Horse Money)— when Vitalina Varela and her husband were young and in Cape Verde
  • A Masterpiece — above I’ve mentioned a half-dozen or more auteurs for some comparison but Costa’s triumph here is as distinctive as it is impressive – a true auteur