Fear can also get to Heaven.
When Pedro Costa knocked on Vitalina Varela‘s door in Lisbon, he was looking for a house in which to shoot some of his latest film Horse Money. What he got instead was an impossibly tragic story about how her long-awaited arrival from Cape Verde happened three days after her estranged husband’s death. Apart for decades and forever holding out hope for the promise of one day reuniting, fate intervened at the eleventh hour to leave her in a new country with nobody she could trust and a language she couldn’t understand. That she was still in that place, however, proved Vitalina found a way to survive despite such hardships. She persevered and stayed true to her word that she wouldn’t be moving again. This was now her home.
How could Costa not want to bring that story to the big screen? And how could anyone embody the emotions she felt during those long and uncertain days alone than Vitalina herself despite never having acted on-camera before? Vitalina Varela was therefore born as a two-hour drama that transports its titular star back to this defining moment of her life. The two collaborated on the script to form what proves a narratively sparse enterprise of static shots, indecipherable whispers, and spotlight focus within a 4:3 aspect ratio. There’s a dream-like quality to what occurs too as each scene carries a very deliberate rhythm more akin to a theatrical play than a film. Monologues alternate with silent revelations as Vitalina secures her footing in her late husband’s foreign world.
That’s the film in a nutshell. We watch as Vitalina traverses the weirdly tense nature of a town populated by other Cape Verde transplants (men like her late husband left for Portugal to become bricklayers). Sometimes she’s feeding them in her living room, her open door a seemingly universal invitation to enter. Sometimes she’s speaking about love with the gentleman who brings her groceries that’s having trouble with his wife. And sometimes she’s with the local priest (regular Costa actor Ventura)—a man who himself has lost faith in the Lord. Everyone has secrets and everyone has regrets. They all have their own stories to tell too whether or not we hear them via words or a look in their eyes. Our quests for closure are never done.
Varela is wonderful and very deserving of the awards she has earned. Just because she’s playing a version of herself doesn’t make her job to emote with authenticity any easier. But we feel her pain. We feel her anger and her fear of the unknown. There’s strength to her character too, though, one that compels her to stand tall whenever a man dares to overstep his boundaries as a guest in her house or a person worthy of her time. She’s spent four decades waiting for a man she saw twice in as many years only to discover what and who he became in her absence. She must reconcile the fact that the husband who wanted to surprise her with a beautiful home became content with its disrepair.
Her journey is thus as much a dismantling of his life as a rebirth for hers. That doesn’t mean she stops loving him—she wants to learn Portuguese to talk with his spirit. It just means she’s ready to exit his shadow and find herself. And as the days progress, we see her period of mourning subside. Candles next to his photographs are replaced by symbols from her new life and the work ethic that made her home unparalleled in Cape Verde pushes her to make good on his promise to fix this one in its image. We hear passages from the Bible, learn of other peripheral tragedies, and simply absorb what it is to live in this village of transplants and strangers with feet in two cultures.
Vitalina Varela isn’t going to be for everyone as a result. I’m still unsure if it’s for me. The pace is staid, dialogue sparse, and plot almost non-existent, but you cannot deny its beauty or honesty. Every frame is a bona fide work of art with expert lighting and composition courtesy of Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões. Foreground and background are utilized to their fullest extent and the silence allows us to see the history etched onto each character’s face. It might be a fictional reenactment of the past, but they make it as real and in the moment as a documentary. This is the struggle these people must endure and the inspirational achievement of surviving to reach tomorrow. It might be slow moving, but it’s emotionally profound.
 Vitalina Varela in a still from Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
 (L to R) Ventura and Vitalina Varela in a still from Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
 Ventura in a still from Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.