by Cat McAlpine
Vitalina Varela travels to Portugal to sift through the ashes of the life her husband led there.
“There is nothing for you here.” Someone on the tarmac whispers upon her arrival, gripping her by the shoulders with a robotic intensity.
But Vitalina marches forward.
Varela plays herself, in a re-enactment of her journey to Libson in the days following her husband’s death. After more than two decades apart, Vitalina no longer recognizes the man she once knew. She navigates an impoverished neighborhood shrouded in darkness, searching for clues as to the man Joaquim had become.
Director Pedro Costa (Horse Money) co-wrote the script with Varela. Together they weave a tale that asks both “How do we forgive others?” and “How do we forgive ourselves?”
Varela delivers a stoic but moving performance as she seeks a kind of redemption for the years spent waiting for her husband. Costa knows where to place Varela, leaving her constantly teetering on the edge of something, in perfectly lit doorways and windows.
This film is largely about the emotion of light and shadow, both on screen and in our own lives. With minimal dialogue and a cast of non-professional actors, Costa must work harder to visually manipulate his tale. To his aid comes a realistic and heavily layered sound design that pairs the low rumble of a crowded neighborhood with the high-pitched notes of spoons in bowls and the yips of dogs.
Almost every scene seems to be lit with a single spotlight, which brings to your attention how dark the spaces really are.
While this technique illuminates every frame like a luxurious renaissance painting, highlighting the sharp turns of hollowed cheeks and shrouding the crumbling backdrop, after two hours your eyes tire from the strain. Vitalina Varela’s strength is also its weakness.
The film is so slow and so hyper-focused on the silence between emotional revelations, it seems largely detached from anything other than its own dark places.
There is a triumphant return to the daylight, beautifully shot like the rest, but it comes long after the movie should have ended. 120 minutes is simply too indulgent for the pacing and sparse narrative offered.