Individual shots in classic Hollywood movies weren’t so much about composition as they were a means to capture a performance amid a professionally designed set and lit so all of the production craft was visible for the audience and office suits to appreciate how their money was spent. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since the artistry that went into those films helped define a cinematic era.
A film by Pedro Costa titled “Vitalina Varela” (2019) stands out because light is as refined a character as much as the actors, setting and story. Photographed by Leonardo Simões with a masterful use of chiaroscuro that recalls Caravaggio and Rembrandt, the film follows the journey of a Cape Verdean woman as she comes to collect her late husband’s remains in Lisbon, Portugal.
To be honest, Costa’s film presents a story that moves at a snail’s pace. Each shot is so lovingly composed that they often resemble high art images within which the actors move and speak in enigmatic phrases containing mysteries and unanswered questions. Western audiences used to chunky exposition and dynamic camerawork may find themselves unsatisfied with only these rich images to absorb. They may have a point. Films like this often reap high praise from film festival critics appreciative of the risk a filmmaker like Costa is willing to take. But, “Vitalina Varela” is an acquired taste.
Here is a synopsis provided by the Toronto Film Festival that helps make clear what happens in this movie: “ ‘Vitalina Varela’ takes its title from the name of its lead actress, a Cape Verdean woman who, as per usual with Costa's non-professional actors, plays a fictionalized version of herself.
“Vitalina first appeared in an episode in the director's previous film, ‘Horse Money’ (Wavelengths 2015), wherein she recounted how her husband had left their homeland nearly 25 years ago to work in Lisbon — a separation that became permanent when she finally arrived on the continent, three days after his funeral.
“In Vitalina Varela, Costa refracts and expands that episode to place us firmly within his heroine's stoic point of view, capturing her extraordinary strength and resilience as she navigates the scanty physical traces her husband left behind, discovers his secret, illicit life, and encounters the other lives that darken the shadows of the Fontainhas that once was.”
This is stunning to look at but will require from the viewer a willingness to think outside the box.
Tempo grade: B+
This film is not rated. It is in Portuguese with English subtitles.
The screening of “Vitalina Varela” is part a new initiative by the Taos Center for the Arts called Big Screen @ Home. It is designed to bring the same art house style features it normally used to screen at the TCA right into the comfort of your home.
Go to the website tcataos.org
/calendar and scroll down to see this week’s selections. Click on the movie you want to watch. When the selection appears, click on the “Watch Movie” link. After that, you’ll be asked to purchase a ticket and be able to view the film. You can watch the movie on your computer, smartphone, tablet. Or, depending on the film, cast to your Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Roku. Instructions for how to watch on smart TVs are available at ticket purchase, the website states.
Tickets cost $10 to $12. “These offerings are new releases and/or not widely available films,” the website states. “If you were going to see this on a big screen, a single entry at TCA costs between $7-$8.50. If there are 2 or more of you, it’s a deal! And even though TCA does not set the ticket price (the digital distributors do), we receive 50 percent of the ticket sales.”
Once you purchase a ticket, you will most likely be able to view the film as many times as you like for three to five days.
Also showing in the Big Screen @ Home series this week
Not rated, but contains some mature themes
At 34, Bridget doesn’t know what she wants even after finally catching a break when she meets a nice guy and lands a much-needed job nannying 6-year-old Frances. But an unwanted pregnancy introduces an unexpected complication.
This exceptionally frank, refreshingly nonjudgmental indie was written by and stars Kelly O’Sullivan, a “girl next door” type whose no-nonsense approach to issues facing both her gender and her generation leaves ample room for laughter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: With the Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres and the Taos Community Auditorium Movies on the Big Screen series closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we will focus on movie reviews available online.