Color, 2019, 124 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Pedro Costa
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/PAL), Grasshopper Film (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
The work of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa has been earning a steady appreciation society over the years since his striking debut with Blood (O Sangue) in 1989, and U.K. label Second Run has been doing its part to bring his films to a wider audience with releases of that first feature, Horse Money, and Casa de Lava getting the Blu-ray and DVD treatment. His most recent feature from 2019, Vitalina Verela, continues his incisive treatment of disenfranchised populations, here honing in on a woman whose life undergoes a major overhaul in a quiet but compelling visual study.
Shot in washed-out gray tones and largely confined to wide master shots, Costa's film charts the evolution of Vitalina Varela, a non-actor using her own name as a woman from Cape Verde who travels to Lisbon tracking down her absentee husband. Upon arrival, she discovers that he's just passed away and been buried, which leaves her with the option of either going back or staying and, while trying to find out what happened to him, building a new life of her own. When she chooses the latter, she finds the empty spaces around her transforming the way she approaches her world and those who acknowledge her existence in a society to which most decide she doesn't belong.
Almost devoid of a traditional plot, this quiet, methodically paced film was created in collaboration with Varela herself who helped come up with the scenario and becomes the focus of some striking, intense close ups from her director. The austere look is effective as well, a far cry from the colorful look normally associated with Lisbon on film and closely in tone to the stark, stylized, and shadowy look of Edward II. Though this will be challenging for some viewers, it's a combination that works well and managed to earn two prizes at the Locarno Film Festival in 2019 (both for its lead actress and Best Film); this is the sort of film that sneaks up on you quietly and burrows deeper than you realize when the end credits start to roll.
Vitalina Varela received nearly simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD releases in both the U.S. and the U.K., though the latter is the more robust special edition. The Second Run features 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 PCM stereo audio options with English or Portuguese subtitles; either mix works and given how subtle and ambient it is for the most part, you're good either way. The transfer looks excellent, as you'd expect for a recent production, without any significant compression issues getting in the way of a visually tricky film full of gradations on textured surfaces. While the U.S. disc features a 41-minute chat with Costa at the Toronto Film Festival, a trailer, and a "Chantal + Pedro" short about his cinematic path crossing with Chantal Akerman, the U.K. one has a persuasive new video intro by Chris Fujiwara (4m14s) and a lengthy and interesting discussion with Costa at the ICA Cinema in London in March 2020 (78m8s) with Maria Delgado. Though soft spoken and, from the sound of it, having a bit of a cold, Costa's full of insight here about the digital revolution in film, his views on the opportunities for artists in Portugal, and the process of selecting actors (or non-actors) to fit the visions of his film, among many other topics. "Companhia" (12m26s) is an abstract college of excerpts from vintage black-and-white films (incorporated fragments of art by everyone from Jean-Luc Godard and Akerman to Pablo Picasso, Frank Borzage and Jean Cocteau) and new, moody environmental studies similar to the main feature, designed as an overview of Costa’s installation exhibition at the Serralves Museum, Porto in 2018. The disc rounds out with four moody teaser trailers and also comes with a 24-page booklet featuring liner notes by Daniel Kasman about Costa's career and the unique status of this film in his output.
Reviewed on November 28, 2020