Vitalina Varela ★★★★★

Let me see what I can say of Vitalina. I have seen it twice, and continue to struggle with it in the days since; I wrote some 4000 words on it after my first viewing, only to toss out a good portion after sitting with it longer, fearing that against my better intentions the writing still remained vague and imprecise. It is only fair to Costa to wait until whatever I have to say – as if my writing was so important, which it isn’t – can be said with a certain precision, a precision that matches that of his own cinema. In an interview with Giovanni Marchini Camia, Costa opposed himself to the merely symbolic, decadent form of art cinema: “I’m not sure if the films were symbolic or metaphoric, but they were vague and I still hate that. The way a film is shot, or edited – you see it. No one thinks about editing anymore. The idea of a shot. To think about a shot, to think about this shot and another shot, about this very complex and tense association, it’s a matter of life or death.” It is for this reason that I hesitate to rush out any thoughts, especially knowing that whatever spontaneous impressions are the enemy of work that is so decidedly concentrated and precise. And so it is with this qualification in place that I write this, knowing that the ideas that follow are still underdeveloped and still grossly academic. At the same time, I fear that as this film travels it will invite many trite declarations that co-opt it for liberal political platforms, generalizations that deliver us safely away from the far more difficult and demanding problems with which the film presents us and with which we must deal should the work and its consequences be understood exhaustively, so in some ways this is meant to anticipate and go further, or at least point in a further direction from which to begin to think about this work.

Following the premiere this week at Locarno, and ahead of his rightful victory, Costa gave an interview with the festival titled “Pedro’s Rules,” which he concluded by declaring, “We produce work. We don’t produce art or lovely things. If you work, you find out it needs more work […] Everything comes from trying and failing and failing again, like the other guy [Beckett] says. So it’s all about the work.” Vitalina likewise maintained the same party line in her moving interview after her rightful win, saying, “This work...it shows a lot…I did it with strength, with courage, with love. It may not seem so to the viewers, but it was a lot, a lot of work.” But it is one thing for them to say it and another thing for it to go heard. It is obviously impossible to ignore the ascendency of Costa’s films on the festival circuit, and with it the factions for and against his work that sprout out of his celebrity. It is surely trendy to like Costa’s films, though it very may well be that it is trendier to write them off as overrated as well. But either path is ultimately for naught if the crucial lessons of his work go unlearned. Thom Andersen writes of Colossal Youth that it is a film “that every filmmaker coming after it will have to confront,” but we can surely extend this to Costa’s career from In Vanda’s Room onward; in any case, I don’t think Andersen goes far enough. It isn’t simply that every filmmaker must reckon with this work, but film culture in general, and particularly the position in which his work is situated.

1.
What prompts this particular writing is a review for Vitalina Varela published in The Hollywood Reporter last week. It is, of course, my fault for reading it, as if there were ever a moment in its history when THR was anything but a shallow advertising agency, but nonetheless I take this review seriously insofar as its unpacking, and specifically unpacking why it is so dreadful, provides an opportunity to better articulate certain hypotheses I have about the meaning of Costa’s work, for us and for filmmaking. I stress the former over the latter, for no doubt there are many more audiences than there are filmmakers, not to mention that applying its value simply to filmmakers alone seem to miss the consequences of his work and reduces it to Sean Baker or Steven Soderbergh’s vain technical exercises. On the other hand, if it remains true that cinema, by whatever designation we may assign to it, if it remains the definitive popular art of its era, then it should be shown how considerations of the latter affect the meaning of the former in meaningful ways, in the ways that lead, among others, Eisenstein to write that “revolutionary form [in cinema] is the product of correctly ascertained technical methods for the concretization of a new attitude and approach to objects and phenomena – of a new class ideology.”

I don’t think there is a line in Neil Young’s review that doesn’t bother me. Shallow comparisons to Tourneur yield nothing when no detail is given. He gets key aspects of the plot incorrect and demonstrates he hasn’t done his homework and seen the prior film in which we meet Vitalina and hear this story for the first time. He likewise wrongly suggests the film is non-linear, which I will address later. The reference to Lynch is completely ridiculous given its total irrelevance to the concerns of the film and likewise the comparison lacks any meaningful detail that would illustrate why such a reference even matters. More to the point, the emphasis on the “horror” of this film, which is not limited to this review, seems to me misplaced. This is a tragedy, naturally, but it does not share any sort of grammar with horror films in the way that Horse Money very explicitly does in its references to Vampyr. But these are all gripes; what is most disturbing to me is the quick joke he makes in the second paragraph about Costa’s “on-going cinematic universe.” What is so baffling to me about this joke is the suggestion that these are, first and foremost, fictions and not actual, real stories being shared by the actors, as if Vitalina did not really lose her husband and really wasn’t able to arrive at his funeral (there is certainly nothing “ironic” about that, either); but also, that it is conceived of in the mind of Costa, as though he is the orchestrator of these narratives – as if they belong to him. The joke, throw-away as it is, is nonetheless symptomatic of the general discrepancy in class-position of the audience this film played to versus the one it depicts. More than anything, it illustrates the contemptible disengagement of petty bourgeois critics to the films they describe, totally unable to meaningfully address a film like this, such that, rather come to terms with the very real poverty and violence Costa’s films depict (and likewise, their joy, which so rarely gets discussed either –note here Andersen’s observation that In Vanda’s Room ends with a laugh), it is reduced to the sloppy, phoned in parlance of the day. What it shows, of Young as well as others, is an inability to take seriously the images he sees and the consequences they bear, for to do so would be to betray the class allegiances these images threaten, and to disturb the broader lack of class consciousness in film criticism in general.

In a lecture, Costa speaks on this phenomena: “We make films as members of society, although there are many people who make films, or see films today, and who think that we live on Mars, or the planet in Terminator, or wherever, but no, we live in a society, Japanese, Portuguese, English, but it's a society, and we're living on the planet Earth.” He follows this by putting forward the question, “Upon what, finally, is this society based? What happens in this society, ours?” This is, of course, the question that drives his work, and the discomfort that his work is met with – outright rejection on the basis of being misérabiliste , bored disinterest, deferral on the grounds of his obscurity, or the trivialization of the work by discussing it simply on aesthetic terms – all of this attests to this remove, this disengagement from the material actuality of this world, from facts that threaten the middle class leanings of film culture. It is significant that Young’s review includes all-too-simple plagiarism of prior comments on Costa (the Tourneur reference, the reference to the sounds without any details, the comments on the lighting). There is no question that Costa’s films are, for people new to his cinema, largely difficult to write about, most tellingly for outlets such as these which are more interested in sales than in expressing ideas. But the question is, why? The simple answer is that they’re long, they’re slow, and they do not offer up their narratives easily. This is all true, but it is a superficial answer nonetheless. What I think takes us closer to the heart of the matter is the fact that in Costa’s work – and this is above all his lesson – their method, the process of their labor, intercedes and takes priority in any meaningful discussion of the work, beyond the mere reciting of narrative (as though its narrative could be disentangled from its labor, its expression in form) or frilly discussions of mise-en-scene.

That the culture industry finds itself unable to grapple with this, and hence take seriously this work and its meaning, is all the more clear to me in the reception of Valérie Massadian’s (one of Costa’s previous collaborators and perhaps the only filmmaker to maintain a certain fidelity to his work) most recent film Milla. In selling this film, it was not uncommon to see claims that it was a “commentary” on motherhood and a critique of capitalism (how original). If this were truly the case, it would then be understandable why some people wrote the film off as being merely chic, another in a slew of slow cinema impersonations. But this is, at best, grasping at straws: in what sense may we say that there is a “commentary” in Milla? What is its stance, then, if this is the case? To me, these questions, and furthermore this pressure for it to mean, takes for granted how these images come to us in the first place, how they came to be at all. Let me take it a step further: the shallowness of the response both to Massadian and to Costa, what is concealed within the complaint that the films are difficult and hard to write about, is a want to step over and skip the labor which these films assign to the viewer, that labor which requires concessions and serious confrontations with one’s class identity. This, too, is contained in the remarks on Vitalina’s horror – it’s too easy, and it sidesteps engagement with what the films have to say. And so we get vague deferrals that elude the more uncomfortable questions these films provoke in favor of discussing them as simply aesthetic reverie, the worst kind of bourgeois formalism.

2.
It is undoubtedly the case that Costa’s films are about process – “we produce work, we don’t produce art” – but we should take care to clarify its distinction from the bourgeois romantic treatment of process in filmmakers ranging from Llinás to Brakhage, Cuarón to Varda. For all of these filmmakers, process is fundamentally self-referential; what is, by contrast, crucial to Costa’s work is a certain evacuation of his own affectations. His sensitivity to this problem can be seen in this interview when discussing Stromboli:

“Well, you know where I work and my subjects often want me to be more direct. This is the problem. Me or Straub or Godard... If you say you're making a film for someone, then they say we cannot see ourselves in there, we can only see you… And they were right. Because that's film. That's the same kind of critique as—and this is a bit extreme—if you ask, is Stromboli a film about the fishermen and the harsh conditions of that life or Bergman? I would say Bergman. It's the same kind of thing. I'm not in as strong a position as Rossellini to debate that, but I'm sure he had the same problems. Even if they were silent and imaginary. But I know they were there.”

We should note that this reference to Stromboli is far from incidental, so much as it is an allusion to his remake of Casa de lava, the production of which inaugurates the decisive break in his work concluded with the production of his following feature Ossos, his first made in Fontainhas and which he now regards with derision (“the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema; it didn’t want it.”). I haven’t revisited Ossos in some time, in part out of a suspicion that it wouldn’t likely hold up. But I find his remark telling, insofar as it clarifies what is crucial for his more recent work: not strictly permission to share these stories; nor simply their collaborative nature in the way Flaherty or Rouch are said to have worked; but the entirely conditional character of the work, the most necessary ingredient that distinguishes him from the majority of his peers, and especially those whose entitlement in telling stories supersedes any reflection on their position in telling them and on whose backs they are built. Costa’s disavowal of art is not false modesty or posturing, but the very requirement for the kind of work he produces, indicative of the modesty of their means and even more so the commitment. I am here reminded of a remark he made in conversation with Dennis Lim after the screening of Horse Money at NYFF: “I asked a number of people to work on [In Vanda’s Room] and some refused – or came there and went away – because they couldn’t stand it. They couldn’t stand the conditions. And, of course, in my films you don’t have protection, you don’t have any kind of protection. The protection you have in film. It’s almost a police thing, when you’re protected…when somebody’s shooting, you see kind of a police situation. And you don’t have that in my films, so you’re very alone.” It is less clear when printed in script than when heard aloud, but it seems to me that the reference to the police is as much a fact of film production as it is a metaphor for their viewing: that any number of filmic devices provide a certain buffer, an ability to consider the material disengaged and coddled. If the bourgeois theater as understood by Brecht is designed around a structure of leading-the-witness, the contrary to this is a theater (here, a cinema) without these protections in place.

This isn’t to say that Costa’s films lack a distance, which is surely not the case; rather, it suggests a need to reevaluate what is understood as distance in aesthetic production – whether the solicitation of audiences via filmic signifiers (music, trivial symbolism, other devices), which are generally understood as invitational, include in the invitation an easy out that precludes us from facing the heart of the matter with a naked seriousness. This is the paradox of Costa’s images, and again entirely an extension of the naked character of his film production (his films made with crews of himself and one or two others): they lack those ordinary solicitations of the viewer, but this brings them closer to the facts their images attest to. When Bazin champions Stroheim, in what is for me the most revealing writing of his career, he writes, “[Stroheim] assassinated rhetoric and language so that evidence might triumph; on the ashes of the ellipse and symbol, he will create a cinema of hyperbole and reality. […] Stroheim did not ask his actors to convey feelings through acting, according to a vocabulary and syntax of gesture transposed to expressive ends. On the contrary, he asked them to reveal themselves as much as possible, to bear their features without shame.” I have emphasized the seemingly contradictory features Bazin ascribes to Stroheim’s films, that they are at once hyperbolic and at the same time realistic. But this is the couplet that is at the heart of the Brechtian method, evident in their didacticism which brings to the fore the questions they pose in terms that are exaggerated so as not to be missed, but just as well are shown without disguise. It is in this respect that their art requires analysis, work, to be understood.

But it is also requires listening, and a lot of it. A common complaint of Horse Money is that it appears to expect its audience has a thorough knowledge of Portugal’s political history and specifically the Carnation Revolution, which is partly the film’s backdrop. I want to pause here to unpack this claim: it’s an easy response to have, and I know I had it as well, so I don’t wish to dog people on this point. By the same token, however, I can’t help but feel that the response reveals more about the expectations than it does the obscurity of his films and Horse Money in particular; after all, we should not overlook the fact that the genesis of Horse Money as a project was Costa’s discovery that Ventura had a very different response to the Carnation Revolution than he did, and wanted to hear about it from the horse’s mouth. And, while the narrative pieces are presented out of order, any attentive viewing will show that they are all there, that everything you need is given to you – it is a film that rewards very active engagement, active listening. You don’t need a textbook on contemporary Portuguese politics to get Horse Money, you just need to pay serious attention to what Ventura has to say, something I am embarrassed to say it took long to realize in its entirety. To have this expectation, or rather, to walk away from the film thinking you missed the point because you don’t know that history is only half-correct. Indeed, you missed the point, but it isn’t for lack of knowledge, but for not attending to the voices whose stories are the substance of the film. To approach Horse Money from the angle of this broader political history is to assume at the outset that Ventura and the other characters are merely subject to, and not the subjects of, the film. To put it briefly, part of the extraordinary nature of Horse Money is the uncompromising challenge it proposes to the telling of history, in who it presents as the agents of history. One fails to see the forest because they won’t look at the trees – or, to put it more accurately, because they haven’t been trained to see the trees that comprise the forest.

3.
So, what can be said of Vitalina? Perhaps the first thing I would emphasize is that Vitalina Varela is arguably his most narratively straightforward fiction film since Ossos when compared to the labyrinthine design of his last three films, which draw on their settings more prominently as their source (the Fontainhas slums in Vanda’s Room, the housing projects which replace it in Colossal Youth, the sanatorium in Horse Money). By comparison, Vitalina is less geographically dependent, marginally so perhaps but it's nevertheless important. Unlike the familiarity one grows toward the dormitories and corridors of the preceding films, Vitalina feels less at home – naturally, of course, given the circumstances of the narrative. Dispossessed land and labor is, as has been the case in nearly all of Costa’s films since Casa de lava, crucial to theme here; as Vitalina steps off the plane, she is greeted by workers who warn that her husband’s home in Portugal is not hers and instructs her to go back. The exchange immediately brings to mind the moment early in Colossal Youth – for me, the single best scene of the 2000s – when, after being kicked out of the Gulbelkian Museum, Ventura reflects on the years he spent building the museum as a laborer. (The filming of this sequence has thankfully been preserved in the documentary All Blossoms Again, where Costa discusses the scene). To the extent that landscape matters here, it is more akin to the shift Stroheim undergoes in The Wedding March, which is to say that less attention is paid to the exhaustive rendering of a space as in Foolish Wives or Greed in exchange for a no less grandiose condensation of a space’s symbolic character, its essentials sifted out and exaggerated into statuary. It isn’t simply decorative, though Costa certainly isn’t afraid of beauty either (“beauty is justice,” as he once said in an interview). What is disguised behind the empty rhetoric of the “haunted” nature of his films is Costa’s unique sensitivity as a filmmaker to the theft fundamental the capitalist mode of production, namely the commodity form as a material expression of expended, dead labor in its representation as private property. The aesthetic tension, then, is the parallel presence of the present activity of the laborer still threatened by exploitation, and the objects whose very existence is an index of a history of chattel and wage slavery, of imperialism and occupation, of theft and genocide.

The consequences of the straightforward plotting in this film are worth mentioning as well. Rewatching his last few films, I was reminded of the way those films curl and circle back on themselves; frequently, their endings show us things that return us to the films’ beginnings, seeing an action take place that was merely described or mentioned in earlier dialogues (the baby and the bird in Vanda, the knife in Horse Money). What is striking about Vitalina is, with two major exceptions I will refrain from discussing, how forwardly linear a direction the film moves, as opposed to the more timeless repetitions in Vanda and Colossal Youth or the cubic temporality in Horse Money. (There is the hope that this means we can dispense with the pithy excuse frequently made when discussing Horse Money that “I don’t know the history of Portugal’s political struggles, so I don’t understand the film.”) Linear, but never singular – we must note that, while the candle provides the material anchor for the film’s logical progression (it can only burn in one direction), Vitalina lights several at her husbands effigy, which burn at different speeds. The rhythm internal to the film is built around this fundamental dissonance, expressed most simply in the film’s introductory funeral procession, where shadowy figures pass Ventura, here playing an alcoholic priest, laying on the pavement in shock. As in any Costa film there are monologues abound, but frequently here, we catch characters in the middle of their delivery, treading down alleyways muttering to themselves. When Vitalina arrives at her deceased husband’s home, many passers-by give their condolences from off-screen. One interjects to try and sell her some food, only to apologize and move elsewhere to sell his wares. To this hustle, Vitalina provides the counterpoint. She has already shared with us her story in her painful featuring role in Horse Money, and while Vitalina does expand on it some, it does so mostly in the film’s second hour. For what feels like the majority of the film, we sit with her as she mourns - it is in these moments where Costa shows more attentiveness to the activities of individuals than he has since Vanda’s Room. Insert whatever pithy reference to Zavattini you want here; certainly, the patience his theoretical writings sought is necessary here, too. In any case, the pairing of these temporalities brings to mind the very same observations Althusser makes of Bertolazzi and Brecht in For Marx, and as he says of them, it seems to me that any accusation that Vitalina Verala is a melodrama misérabiliste appears nonsensical to anyone “who has ‘lived’ the performance or studied its economy.” Or, as Thom Andersen says of In Vanda’s Room, “they [the critics] have seen the needles and the drugs but not the beauty and the sympathy.” Most of all, they haven’t seen the work.

I’d like to dwell on Brecht for a moment. Frequently in the past, I would refer to Rosenbaum’s observation that “Costa even discourages identification by refusing to shoot reverse angles, Hollywood’s conventional way of drawing us into the characters’ space.” In truth, Rosenbaum is wrong: here are a few I noticed in In Vanda’s Room, here in Colossal Youth, in Horse Money, and yes, there are some here as well (it would perhaps be more appropriate to say that Costa refuses master shots in most cases, which makes it more difficult at times to parse out S/RS). But the bigger question to pose is the value of such an objective if this were the case in the first place. In other words, for what purpose would that remove be made? I still believe, as does Costa when speaking here, in the necessity of distance, which distinguishes a film like Vitalina from something like Roma. At the same time, I think I personally failed in erring too far on the side of alienation and thus falling into the trap of bourgeois modernism popularized by Greenberg and others, evacuating Brechtian verfremdungseffekt of its necessary popular corollary and thus reinscribing the sanitization, the hostility to difference, in bourgeois society that keeps the experiences of others out and precludes any social solidarity. Regarding this problem, Gilberto Perez (by no means the first to note this) writes, “it is curious that film theory of the seventies should have combined derogation of narrative with admiration for Brecht, the very playwright of an “epic” or narrative theater. But illusion was deemed the enemy, and Brecht was deemed the enemy of illusion. Brecht’s alienation effect was held up as the model for what art should do: destroy illusion. It was not recognized that Brecht put a curb on dramatic illusion in order to generate a kind of narrative illusion, a kind of theater that would report rather than enact characters and events, that would represent a story no longer in the form of action but of narrative.” Perez, of course, is right, for Brecht is entirely clear that his theater is designed to produce stances for and against the material. It is of course the case that Costa’s films are designed to do, too, and furthermore demand, the same.

In this demand, Costa brings to mind what is crucial in Bazin, namely an endorsement of a formal system that requires thought, choice, and decisions on the part of its audience. But Bazin’s intentions are those of a liberal democrat; nowhere is this clearer than in his writings on Wyler, whose depth-of-field framing he admires as a reflection of “the consciences both of the American viewers and the characters in The Best Years of Our Lives” (this point is raised and further argued by Comolli in the first essay of “Technique and Ideology,” to which this observation owes a great debt). And furthermore, Bazin’s democratic vision is in many ways attached to the leisure economy, as his writing on Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning illustrates better than anything. If, as Sight & Sound claims, Gilberto Perez is the inheritor of the Bazinian legacy (a wasted argument – does it matter?), I would say at the very least it is true insofar as Perez likewise considers the challenging relationship of modernism and realism in art, most especially in the essay “History Lessons” in The Material Ghost. I’ll repeat here the line I always cite from that essay: “This is how naturalism leads to modernism: in the actual world we inhabit, where we can have no privileged access to what goes on, no ideal place from which to apprehend what takes place, we must acknowledge the means by which we actually manage our access, we must put into question the means our art employs for representing the world.” But I fear that, in the past, I left out a crucial piece of the equation, namely his claim that “modern art declares its means not because they are its only subject but in order to put them in question, because it feels it cannot take its assumptions for granted in its search for truth,” emphasis mine. And thus, he writes, “modernism is not a style but a stance, not a stance against realism or against the popular, not any settled stance but a stance against the settled, a stance of questioning, of self-questioning.”

This returns us to the question of Costa’s process. It is precisely in this sense that Andersen’s claim that all filmmakers must contend with Costa’s work gains any meaning. Pedro Costa’s films are among our most important because they require us to take stances on issues that travel further than the concerns of the films individually, on issues that lie at the heart of the medium’s potentiality for knowledge, for responsibility, for engendering activity on the part of its viewers. Moreover, Costa and Massadian may be too polite to ever say it outright, but it is the kind of work that demands commitment that takes a stand against other films and forms. To my mind, it is insufficient for the viewer of their work to celebrate their style and not also recognize it as the standard by which to measure the political effectivity of other work, in the past as well as in the present.

The protagonists of Costa’s films are frequently construction workers, but only at the end of this film do we see, for the first time, someone building. More specifically, they are building on the mistakes and failures of the past, so as to build a future more solid and sure than before. All of Costa’s films from In Vanda’s Room onward have decidedly optimistic endings, but we can be certain that none have been this bright.

To quote Eisenstein’s conclusion to his Notes of a Film Director,

“We must develop consciousness to enable it to fulfill these new tasks.
We must sharpen the pointed edge of our thoughts to solve these tasks.
We must master past experience in the interests of the future.
We must work tirelessly.
We must seek incessantly.
We must face boldly the new era in art.
We must work, work, and work –
In the name of an art born to spread the greatest ideas of our era among the millions.”

There is no contemporary cinema as important than this. There isn’t anything half as close, even, because few others are willing to do the work.

“For the ultimate goal [of revolutionary thought, of Marxism] is not a ‘state of the future’ awaiting the proletariat somewhere independent of the movement and the path leading up to it. It is not a condition which can be happily forgotten in the stress of daily life and recalled only in Sunday sermons as a stirring contrast to workday cares. Nor is it a ‘duty,’ an ‘idea’ designed to regulate the ‘real’ process. The ultimate goal is rather that relation to the totality (to the whole of society seen as a process), through which every aspect of the struggle acquires its revolutionary significance.”
- György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness

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