Vitalina Varela

Pedro Costa's powerful and majestic latest blurs the line between actress and character

Since his early experiments in docufiction, Portuguese director Pedro Costa has assiduously honed a heightened form of stately and intense art cinema, merging near-portraiture with a kind of poetic-realism. Building on interconnected earlier entries Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014), his latest is the most refined example yet of his uncompromising practice. Though it may seem taxing, Vitalina Varela reveals controlled reserves of power and pictorial majesty over a stealthy two hours, rewarding your focus in slow, sure increments.

Working with a non-professional cast, Costa suggestively blurs the division between actress and character in the commanding figure of the titular Vitalina Varela, previously the subject of a devastating cameo in Horse Money, and who co-writes here. We meet Vitalina as she returns from her home in Cape Verde to the crumbling barrios of Fontainhas, a frequent point of focus for Costa's films. The occasion is the death of her estranged husband, who deserted her decades previously, leaving behind him a trail of unfulfilled promises.

Varela's mixed feelings about her faithless spouse emerge in declarative monologues, staged by Costa in shadow-drenched interiors with a near-ceremonial intensity. DoP Leonardo Simões evokes the spirit of Cat People director Jacques Tourneur in his deep, dense images, which transform living spaces into quasi-purgatorial dead zones. The result resembles a ghost story at times, albeit one infused with a soulful grandeur – and haunted by the living.

While Varela holds the attention with unforced power, she's matched for magnetism by returning Costa lead Ventura as a priest whose flagging faith provides thematic resonance. As a fable of grief, Costa's drama offers no consolatory platitudes. Instead, it emerges as a series of existential meditations on hardship and resilience, rendered with sombre, artful grace. Even if it can seem a little overly hermetic, every rigorously administered detail accrues a cumulative power: when glimpses of colour do illuminate the gloom, the impact is emphatic.

Selected release from Fri 6 Mar.

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