I confess I have seldom found it more difficult to sit through a film than this. Vitalina Varela is probably the darkest film I’ve ever seen. The unmitigated darkness of its heart first has to do with the squalor of the setting—a chawl in the suburbs of Lisbon so tiny it looks like passageway into hell with tiny gloomy rooms with walls and doors that hark back to a time when the place was inhabitable.
Now it’s only a dumping ground for the desperately diasporic. Cinematographer Leonardo Simões captures the desperation and despondency lurking in the darkness through faces that signal the end of life. There are men standing or sitting in postures that suggest no hope. These are people just waiting to make the transition to the other world. And the place that they call home is nothing but a wait-room to hell.
The poky dingy rooms suggest a swelling stench of death which I found hard to bear. Watching Vitalina Varela for nearly two hours is like staring into the face of death. The lead actress whose actual name is Vitalina Varela conveys that aura of doom which only the very desperate can carry with such a lack of drama. This is a woman who has nowhere to go, nothing more to see and say. Her retreat into this dungeon of death is terrifying in its use of cramped spaces crowded with sweaty migrants into rooms so small and yet so filled emptiness.
For its visual vividness and emotional aridity the film left me unmoved. It’s far too weighed down with its own sense of desperation to offer us even a sliver of salvation. Striding this world of defeat and despondency is the actress Vitalina Varena in the title role. The film is based on her own experiences as an absentee husband’s wife resigned to lifetime of waiting. Like the real Vitaline Varena, her screen avatar travels from the small port town of Cape Verdean to Lisbon to meet her husband who has been missing for 40 years. When she arrives she realises he is dead.
Thus begins Vitalina’s internalised monologues with her dead husband in rooms with ceilings so low that nobody is the danger hitting the roof. The film is so taken up with its own anguished portrait of forlornness that it feels like a mournful direful reverie interrupted by bouts of self-doubt when the dilapidated—and that’s putting it mildly—shantytown threatens to collapse on Vitalina’s head.
You wish anything would happen to break the deathly monotony and stillness of Vitalina Varena. Not even a heart-pump can revive this eerily unmoving movie that fails to move or provoke. It just doesn’t end.
Image source: Youtube/Grasshopperfilm, Instagram/vitalinavarelafilm,IMDb
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