By Haden Guest
Interview by Mark Peranson
A moving study of mourning and memory, Pedro Costa’s revelatory new film offers an indelible portrait of Vitalina Taveres Varela, a fragile yet indomitable woman who makes the long voyage from Cape Verde to Lisbon to attend her estranged husband’s funeral, but misses the event itself because of cruel bureaucratic delays. The name and tragic story will be familiar to those who know Costa’s previous masterwork, Horse Money (2014), in which Vitalina appears as one of the ghostly figures alternately confronting and comforting Costa regular Ventura during his soul-searching stay in a haunted sanatorium. Vitalina Varela forms a diptych with that earlier film, extending its intermingling of personal and national trauma while refining Costa’s unique mode of oneiric first-person cinema in which inner voices are theatrically recited like prayers. Ventura returns here as a priest gripped by a crisis of faith that recalls the fear, trembling, and self-doubt animating his somnambulant patient in Horse Money. Vitalina’s singular presence, meanwhile, is dramatically expanded into a mesmerizing starring turn, which lends simmering power to the larger project shaped across Costa’s films post-In Vanda’s Room (2000): giving epic but still intimate cinematic dimensions to the urgent struggles of the dispossessed.
Costa’s literally and poetically darkest film, Vitalina Varela plunges even deeper into the endless night of phastasmagorical soliloquies and serpentine wanderings. The extended, pre-credit opening sequence reveals Costa’s commitment to a film-noir darkness that is simultaneously palpable and ethereal, equally an expression of his sculptural poetics and of his characters’ imperilled status on the far margins of society. Under a starless night sky, a small parade of tired men in funereal black slowly marches past a high-walled cemetery. Two help along an unstable Ventura, until he falls in exhaustion beside the road while the rest of the men drift back to their respective homes. In a beautifully rhythmic sequence, Costa follows each of the men as they open and close the creaking metal doors of their humble cinder-block houses, pausing statuesquely before entering, as if to make clear an expressive connection between the weary bodies and worn buildings. Indeed, Costa offers the dilapidated houses as intimate realms to be respectfully explored, as he transforms the weathered buildings into luminous, almost 3D icons of the protected life and space so longed for by Vitalina.
Costa has always subtly mined deep meaning from the lived-in and most often hand-built spaces inhabited by his characters and collaborators: spaces that are both private and communal, isolated yet interconnected by the murmur of neighbourhood sounds that pass through their thin walls. In Vitalina Varela, Costa finds a richly symbolic dimension in those buildings that best reveal the inner lives of Vitalina and Ventura: her cherished but abandoned house in Cape Verde, her dead husband’s ramshackle Lisbon home, and Ventura’s empty, seemingly abandoned church. The parallel suggested between dilapidated home and church as equal expressions of Vitalina and Ventura’s alienation from the world underscores a newly explicit sacred dimension in Costa’s cinema, one given overt expression in the film’s second half in the dialogue and prayers shared by the two characters as Vitalina struggles to understand her paradoxical love for the man who abandoned her, and Ventura grapples with a fateful moment when he neglected his sacred charge. Like the abandoned structures they inhabit, Vitalina and Ventura desperately need to be shored up and protected from the elements by a sturdy roof.
An early signal of the spiritual symbolism and direction of Vitalina Varela is given in the film’s opening sequence and first close-up: a worn, purple-graffiti crucifix that seems to confront Ventura immediately after he breaks from the funeral procession to rest beside the road. Everyday objects and sites are transformed by Costa into sacred symbols and shrines that shimmer with fervent private meaning as instruments for holy rites, like the bottles of perfume set solemnly as offerings on Vitalina’s candlelit table by an ex-cellmate of her husband, or the utility poles shown that become vernacular crucifixes and symbols of Ventura and Vitalina’s search for truth and reckoning. At another point, rhythmic close-ups of Ventura’s hands leaning against the base of the same kind of utility poles as he slowly finds his way back to his church transforms these everyday markers into stations of a private Passion.
Costa, of course, masterfully understands and embraces the power of cinema to give grace and gravity to the everyday, to transform non-actors into wondrous cine-theatrical presences equal to those of Rossellini, Straub-Huillet, Reis, and Condeiro. But to those artists’ austere control, Costa adds an element of the thrillingly cinematic sublime: there could be no better example than Vitalina’s stunning and dramatically delayed entrance, when she appears as a backlit silhouette standing in the doorway of a phantom airplane taxiing towards a chorus of women poised on the tarmac, airport janitors anxious to console the weary traveller. In Horse Money, Vitalina tells of the fever and incontinence that wracked her body during her difficult delayed flight, but as she here descends the metal stairs barefoot, dripping wet, it is as if she had swum or walked across the ocean: the close-up of her unshod feet shedding shining droplets onto the steps is an image of a saint or a superhero, a statement of strength, naked vulnerability, and sanctity.
Costa’s is a willfully pure cinema, an uncompromised and rapturous mode of B-film able to abandon and reinvent the rules and traditions of the classical cinema he understands so well. How fitting, then, that Vitalina’s entrance poignantly echoes the delirious and fateful airport ending of Joseph H. Lewis (and John Alton’s) minor magnum opus The Big Combo (1955), and that the wind so frightening to Vitalina as she lays awake in her bed seems ushered from the films of Sjöström, Murnau, or perhaps Borzage. In Vitalina Varela Costa makes clear that, like these filmmakers (and like Borzage especially), he understands and fervently believes in the potential of cinema to realize miracles onscreen— whether to cure infirmities of the body and soul, to bend the present back to recover the past, or to calm the winds of the most savage storm. Indeed, a series of small, profound miracles move Vitalina, drawing her out of her isolation to discover new friendship and perhaps forge a peace with her past. The sound of the raging storm above her bed is magically echoed, in a matching shot, by the neighbourhood men securing her roof and transforming the house into her home. The image of the men at work beneath a suddenly blue sky then cuts, miraculously, back to the film’s touching closing image, of Vitalina and her late husband Joaquim as they built their house together in Cape Verde. Miraculous too seems the blue and open sky in this final shot, a celestial expanse only glimpsed in this largely nocturnal and interior film.
Made in close collaboration with Vitalina and shaped around her actual life experiences, Costa’s film is built from the same kind of highly personal language, stories, and singular situations as his other major works, an important dimension underscored and even emblematized by his bold use of his heroine’s name for his title. And yet the film contains an important political address to a larger situation: a suggestion of Vitalina’s embittered love for the man that abandoned and abused her as an echo of the difficult pull and dependency linking former colony and mainland, Cape Verde and Portugal, embodying the complex, contradictory identities of the immigrant, the displaced, the orphan of the storm, who is unable to find purchase on either native or adopted soil. While Costa embraces the potential of cinema as a mythopoetic and miraculous art, he also ultimately refuses its utopian promise of resolution by grounding his films in the unmistakably real lives of the collaborators who appear onscreen. And yet, in the final image of Vitalina Varela, Costa also poignantly contradicts himself by offering a tender gift to Vitalina: a purely cinematic illusion of lost innocence recovered, a moving image of all-too-fleeting happiness with her late husband, now transformed into a lasting and gently epic home movie performed by actors.
Cinema Scope: Let’s start with Vitalina. You’ve made two films with names of women in the title, Vitalina Varela and In Vanda’s Room, which I don’t think is a coincidence. When I saw the new film a second time, I thought a lot about In Vanda’s Room. The first time I saw it as an elaboration of part of Horse Money, which of course it also is.
Pedro Costa: You were the first one to talk about Vanda.
Scope: I thought about it, and especially—I’m jumping ahead—in terms of the sound. But I wanted to ask if you see a comparison between the two films or the two women.
Costa: I haven’t analyzed it yet, but yeah, sure. There’s something feminine, of course. And the feelings. Going back to the neighbourhood, yes, at all costs—and the studio, sound editing, lights. Going back. But going back to somewhere that Vitalina didn’t know, actually. A lot by the sounds of course, because the rest is a bit more abstract. A certain kind of dureté…Like Vitalina says, “feet on the ground.” That’s why we shot two or three shots of her feet, arriving, going out, etc. She likes to say her feet are always on the ground, even when she’s a bit confused. Vanda was a little bit like that, too. The rest…Loneliness, it’s obvious. They’re very alone, Vanda and Vitalina.
Scope: Did Vitalina take over the film in the same way that Vanda did?
Costa: Yeah, in a way that a very strong presence does—the photogenetics, almost. But from the beginning, I knew that this would be a very dense or painful film. The problem, or the work, would be to concentrate all of the things that Vitalina was remembering, because there were a thousand stories about the husband, a thousand memories from Cape Verde, so to organize…One moment I thought that we could go back and forth between the places, but I didn’t know how to do it, so there’s just one shot left…
Scope: Aren’t there two?
Costa: The final one is not exactly that…it’s different, I think. In Vanda there was the same thing in that she would project us into something. We’d go out of the room. And here we would go to Cape Verde to donkeys and mountains, but I didn’t know how to assemble that, so it remains an oral thing, a memory, text.
Scope: But the flashbacks are shot in Cape Verde?
Costa: They are, yeah. Just one, a girl and a boy, and then the end. But, yes, I thought of doing a big part of “the young years,” of the romance, and actually the building of the house. Then I thought it’s not as interesting as the recollection.
Scope: Also, Joaquim the husband is totally absent. We don’t even know really how he died.
Costa: Still I don’t know, I don’t think she knows. But again it’s like in Vanda or Tarrafal (2007), there’s a guy who just disappears and dies. That’s very common in problematic places. People just fade and disappear. And then you know they died with a knife, or a gun. This guy was a nasty guy. The guy who plays his friend in the film told me that in the last months Joaquim was really probably one of the biggest dealers of the neighbourhood, and then he got diabetes or heart disease, or whatever…there was blood in the house, diarrhea on the floor, he was kaput…But at the same time he had the money to go to a hospital, etc. So it was a strange thing. But nobody knows, was it his heart, or even drugs. Who knows?
Scope: And the rest of the story is basically what happened to Vitalina. In that, the same thing: funeral, came three days late, didn’t want to leave, stayed just because of…
Costa: We could jump to the last question. Why does she want to stay? That’s also a big mystery.
Scope: It’s a mystery why she wanted to stay?
Costa: That’s what I’m afraid of, asking her and knowing the answer at the same time. Why is she staying? Because she’s always saying, “This is no place for a woman, there’s no love here, there’s no humanity,” and then “Cape Verde is much better, the animals, the sun. I like to work the field, the land, my feet on the ground.” These are all her words. So, why do you want to stay? I never asked her, because I’m afraid of the answer. She has a son and a daughter there. They are 19 and 21, one wants to come, but, it’s strange…I think she wants to be alone. I’m not sure.
Scope: Was the shooting with Vitalina this time around different for you than in Horse Money?
Costa: In the other film, it was the first time we were getting to know each other, me and her, all of us, the crew. When we started this film three or four years ago, we wrote some notes, we talked, then we began rehearsing, like theatre, we rehearse scenes or moments of dialogue, we wonder what we can do. We wrote the screenplay together. Actually, she wrote more of the screenplay than I did; she didn’t write it by hand, but she memorized it. You see ten or five or one minute of dialogue or monologue, in the beginning it was ten or 20 minutes. My work is to contain, to compress, to organize, divide, and build the movie. We knew she had an obsession—the late husband—so we began with that. You should meet your husband’s friends, talk with them, see what happens. In that moment I understood she had a very angry relation with all the men in that place—all those people you see are real. And I just feel that Vitalina is much more real than me, or you. She’s too real for a certain kind of reality. And I miss that reality in films, and in real life. But then it widened out, because when you’re angry with someone or something, you become angry with the world, with your condition. I work in a place where people are very, very angry and have no means to resist, to change. The next time will be worse than this one, you know it and I know it. It’s the way of the world, because people are just mean to each other.
Scope: So the ideas for specific scenes came out of both Vitalina and Ventura?
Costa: Ventura less, but the basis for Ventura’s character comes from this moment when I asked Vitalina—which is another frightening moment—why didn’t she want to go on the second day she arrived to the cemetery. And she said, “I was thinking, I was not sure.” She speaks a little bit in riddles. “Not sure…I didn’t know my way.” “It’s written cemetery,” I said. “Yes, but I didn’t know anyone. Nobody helps me.” So she said one day she left the house at night to try to find the way to the cemetery, to go there by daylight. “Why didn’t you go by daylight?” “Because everyone could see me.”
She started following this old man, I think he had a cane, as she felt he would lead her to the cemetery. Which is a very strange thing and very good…to shoot. And actually, she lost this man and she found a church, not the cemetery. So this was the starting point for a priest. Then she told me a story of a young priest in Cape Verde who was a little bit strict with the regulations. You can be confessed if, you can be married if, etc. At the same time, she says he was confused. And so, this day arrives when a bunch of guys come in a kind of African taxi, and they want to be baptized. And he refused. Perhaps another priest will do that, so he said go away. And they went and crashed, and they all died, and Vitalina saw that. Bodies everywhere. And this priest came running and he lost his marbles. He was sent by the Bishop of Cape Verde to Lisbon to be treated in an asylum. So he’s no longer a priest, but he lives in Lisbon. We vaguely tried to find him. Sometimes he comes to the neighbourhood to talk with his fellow Cape Verdeans. Vitalina saw him, and says he’s looking much better. But still he has his trousers on his knees! It happens that Ventura knows that priest, so it’s a famous story; Ventura’s village is ten miles from Vitalina’s. So we said, “Ventura, you are going to be a priest,” and he was very happy. All his neighbourhood was very surprised, so he became Priest Ventura, and now everybody calls him Father. He says “Shut up…stop!”
Scope: To give religion a prominent place in a movie must be an issue for you.
Costa: It could be avoided, of course. But they all are believers, more so than the younger generation, they go to church, Vitalina goes to church every Sunday, she sings mass. It could be avoided, but at the same time it was very present. There are some Christs around her house. I never saw her pray, but it’s there. Silently there, so it’s a little bit like the drugs. You could do the film without, but why not, why not? And then it’s kind of delirium, so why not.
Scope: Like the last speech, when Ventura’s talking in Portuguese and she’s repeating it, it’s kind of like religious delusion.
Costa: That’s fragments from poems, from the Bible…
Scope: Sounds like it could be the Bible, but not really…
Costa: Mainly it’s a poem, from a Romantic Portuguese poet. Nobody found out yet.
Scope: And what is the name of this Romantic Portuguese poet?
Costa: Antero de Quental. He was a suicidal, Romantic poet, who died around 1890. He came before Pessoa, and Pessoa liked him a lot. And a lot of things come from a poem called “Shadows.” There are also a lot of Biblical things. And those actually Ventura knows, I don’t know how, but with a little twist, let’s say. For instance, “Mirror of patience, pray for us.” I said, “What?” “Yes, St. Joseph.” “How do you know that?” “It’s in a Cape Verdean folk song.” Things like that. But, there’s a sort of lonely delirium in this situation, I think. I was a bit afraid, but the church presented itself there, it exists, we didn’t build it.
Scope: That’s not a set?
Costa: It’s there still, I hope. Even my architect friends didn’t know it existed. It’s very African, Mississippian, and you go inside…We shot outside and then built the inside in studio. We copied the inside a little bit. I mean, there’s no floor, they didn’t have time and money, nobody comes, only four women to pray the rosary because they don’t have a priest. Everything is unfinished, unpainted, so it has this primordial or primitive look that’s interesting. Finding this place and imagining Ventura alone there reminded me a bit of the elevator in Horse Money. So it could be the same kind of delirium…and it could be a place to have a conversation or confession. Because I need that. I need places to escape the loneliness of the room. Vitalina told me she sometimes wanted to go out more and was afraid or ashamed. I understand that it must have been hard, as all the neighbours didn’t like to see her there. We talked to a lot of people, who said “Hmm…that house was her husband’s, not hers.”
Scope: So they didn’t fix the roof.
Costa: No, no. We are going to fix it. There’s even a little bit of racism between them. I was amazed by the lack of solidarity, but then again it’s much more violent than 20 years ago when we shot the first or second film. Much more divided, people criticizing each other—the community is completely broken. Vitalina came in 2013, after the crisis. The drugs are coming back again, heroin, that was a big market in those places, and it helped a lot of people to live.
Scope: Talking about the neighbourhood, which as you say has changed immensely since In Vanda’s Room, leads to the question about how much you shot in the studio and how much you were shooting on location.
Costa: Everything that’s more concentrated, windows or doors, it’s studio. We grabbed doors, we grabbed windows, we tried to imagine light that could match. And then there are some streets in this neighbourhood where Vitalina lives, which is a much more white, let’s say conventional neighbourhood. In one of the centres of that neighbourhood, there are four or five streets that are a little bit like Fontainhas was, and those are the backyards of some white families’ houses. And you have two or three alleys, kind of a construction that resembles a Medina. So we shot wherever we could and there was a lot of matching lighting work, because a lot that you see is interiors. We found this big cinema that we turned into a studio.
Scope: Is there a different feeling shooting in the studio than in people’s houses?
Costa: Well, Vitalina’s house became a little studio. But it’s very small: it’s me, her, camera, and that’s it, nobody else. Everyone outside, in the heat in summer, it’s difficult. But it’s her house, so it’s practical, and in a way she probably needed that too. When she’s looking, she’s looking at her mirror, her wall, her window. But we turned it into a studio, more or less. We left everything there, lights, tripods, so she lived in a kind of studio for months and months, poor woman. And in the studio itself, we shot a lot of things. As I told you before, they need that, they need the protection… again, this confirms my feeling or intuition that they are actor’s studio. Actors that belong to studios in the sense that Joan Crawford needed a special kind of light, treatment, and a special kind of solitude or imprisonment. A studio is like a prison. That’s why they got so far, those Americanos. If you’re so reclusive, so protected from all sorts of realities, you get there perhaps faster sometimes. And Ventura’s not well, she’s nervous, she’s afraid…so they need to work everyday, I need to work with them, so it’s hours and hours and weeks and takes and takes. If we can avoid being outside, it’s better. Ventura needs to be comfortable, and sitting down some of the time, because he’s very tired. When we did Colossal Youth (2006), he has an 11-minute shot where he’s standing with the boy and now he cannot stand for more than one or two minutes. Even Vitalina gets tired with 30 takes of a four-minute shot… no,it’s more comfortable, and it gives you another kind of routine.
Scope: Is it also easier for lighting?
Costa: I’m not sure. Certainly if we would shoot daylight, in the park, or the church, you would find ways to be lighter with the light, using reflectors or…
Scope: Especially because it’s so dark. I assume when you start building a set, you have an idea of how the film is going to look, and then you have in mind how you are going to light the space.
Costa: What happened to us, for instance in the cemetery, was a nightmare. I said, “I think the end will be in the cemetery, I think probably it will be. So everybody prepare.” And we got the permit, then the day came to shoot and we went there, and we had this kind of studio sky or something. I said, “Fuck.” No light again, so it was absolutely dark. It was 3 o’clock, you couldn’t almost see anything, it’s overexposed, high contrast. But everything in a way came together. When they go out, it’s even darker, even more closed than inside…It began with Vanda and her small prison, and then you go from prisoner to guard—they are not really prisoners, they’re their own guardians…Fontainhas was a maze of little cells, with no comfort. There was no real effort to make their homes there. Because they were always waiting for something that I’m sure all of them knew wouldn’t come or came too late—new houses, or a new life. Vitalina was shut in that house and never opened the door, and when she opened the door was the first day that I met her. Now her door is slightly open every day. That’s after the film. But she’s a force, everyone recognizes that she’s a lady to be respected. But it’s very chaotic now. Much more chaotic. Coming and going, you know. Rooms are rented. Every day there are new faces. And the older generation tends to really disappear. Half of the guys in that beginning procession are dead now. The guys with the canes, all of them. It’s so, so scary.
Scope: I want to follow up more on the cinematography. Because at the press conference yesterday, you were asked about chiaroscuro, Caravaggio—I know, I know, but this reaction is something that people are going to have. And in a way it also distracts from other things in the film, because the cinematography is so overwhelming. What led you more into this aesthetic direction?
Costa: There’s not much light inside Vitalina’s house, that’s the truth. The guy didn’t build any capable windows, like she says, just small holes in the walls. It’s very damp, very cold, the roof is what it is, so it’s dark, and this main location, the neighbourhood, even by daylight, as you see in Vanda especially, it’s confined—even the light arrives a bit late. It’s my, I wouldn’t say “taste,” but the studio, the interior of the house, the light…I think I work better like that. I’m less interested by the opposite, and that was probably one of the reasons that we didn’t go more for the flashbacks. But one day, who knows? For now we are still in that moment of her life, and that moment she describes as a nightmare—sleepless nights, always inside, and no desire whatsoever to escape. She was just waiting for something. I asked her two or three times, if we wouldn’t have met, what would have happened? And she said, “Probably nothing.” During the making of, or a little bit after Horse Money, she worked in two or three houses as a cleaning lady, she didn’t get paid, and then she worked at Zara, that’s why there are some perfumes in the shot. Actually, they are her perfumes.
Scope: How do you work with the cinematographer, Leonardo Simões?
Costa: In the beginning I thought I could work more like in Horse Money, where I did much more, but I still did a lot, even practically, with my hands, because we are three, so it’s a lot of work. This one is more dense, let’s say, more painful too. Horse Money had kind of a fantasy that this one doesn’t have. So for Leonardo it was very, very hard work, because the space is so small, and we like to work with small lights, so very punctual, very oriented sources, a lot—not just one or two—so it’s a lot of time to prepare, sometimes too much. Too much in a sense that we had Vitalina waiting or other guys waiting, less in the studio, more in her house. There were walls in the studio, so it was bigger and you could breathe a little bit more. So I talked and made adjustments or suggested things, but it was much more him than myself. But it’s a collaboration. I know what I wanted and what he likes more or less. It was elaborate and complex and always difficult in digital.
Scope: It’s a different camera, though?
Costa: It’s a different camera, it’s a bigger camera. But I wouldn’t say better.
Scope: Because of the amount of darkness?
Costa: No, because I won this camera in a prize at the Munich Film Festival. The ARRI/OSRAM prize. Two traditional, respected German corporations. Godard can tell about ARRI and OSRAM. OSRAM invented the lamps to light up the Olympics in that year, so. I won that camera there, and it’s a good camera, so we have this bigger, better camera. But it doesn’t mean easier. Digital is very difficult too, I’m sure. Leonardo was always saying, “I’m not sure, I’m not sure,” but I think if we would shoot in 35mm or 16mm we would get the same thing—not better, but quicker. Because textures and surfaces respond very different to film or digital. I would even say that In Vanda’s Room it’s more interesting to let it be with the pixels, the movement, and the noise, then to have it clean in 4K. Digital isn’t made to film skies, for instance: it’s always very bad. Caroline Champetier complains about the skies, the blue, the clouds, the contours…inside it’s the same thing and with artificial lights, but well, we go, and we take some roads. And then there are some things that are quite extreme and radical, shots that are really dark and there are no faces, but it’s either do that or something so complex and sophisticated, but that’s beyond our means.
Scope: I mentioned the sound earlier as it relates to Vanda…
Costa: I think in my mind the sound comes from the desire to go back to the sounds of the old neighbourhood. This sound is very composed. But it’s a real memory of what it used to be, what it still is sometimes, because I spend lots of days and nights at Vitalina’s, like I used to at Vanda’s. And the most painful moments of Vitalina recollecting, remembering something very awful, can have the most amazing soundtrack in reality. Like a couple talking about sex or something, and you can mostly hear everything. So again, like in Vanda, no pain is private or no joy is a secret. There is always a very nice contradiction in the montage. Even Ventura’s mass was a bit studio, but not enough to block the trains and cars and planes, so we tried to arrange it to have a good, direct sound. When I was rehearsing with Vitalina or on days when we didn’t shoot, the sound guy was recording here and there. In other places, we got some nice sound, ambient sound, noises and things.
Costa: Well, the chickens, that’s recorded close to that church, because it’s a little bit removed. When you get there, it’s even more strange: who did this, what for, and why and who’s responsible? Who’s in charge? It’s close to a place where Vitalina also used to have a small garden, that’s what she likes, growing her potatoes and stuff, cabbage. They all have a little piece of land, illegal absolutely, close to a Metro station, it’s completely chaotic with shacks, and this church has lots of chickens, sick horses, like Don Quixote horses with bellies, some pigs, one or two goats. It’s very “suburban,” but that’s her thing. She said, “What saved me was the garden, just going there, working the land. I forget everything, I’m happy.” So, yeah, the chickens, the birds, the animals, cats, that used to be Fontainhas—now it’s not really like that, even if, when Vitalina is in the bedroom, which is the part of the house that’s really interior, there’s a lot of communication with the neighbours, so we recorded a lot of things there: conversations, dinners, TVs, music.
Scope: I would say that there’s no songs, but I guess Ventura sings two lines at one point…and the techno.
Costa: Ah, the techno. Before Horse Money, I met this young DJ, he’s half Cape Verdean and half I think Angolan or something. But he’s really famous, he does the MoMA raves. He’s called DJ Marfox, and he said whenever you want, I’ll give you my music—so that’s his music, super heavy techno metal or something, I don’t know. On the background there’s some more, and in a good theatre, with good sound, you’ll hear a lot more, even subliminal sometimes—not riffs, but frequencies from his beat box.
Scope: The sound of the power. Like that shot of the electricity post.
Costa: Exactly, yes, because all these kids—the musicians and the ones that just listen to music—are in these neighbourhoods, they aren’t going away, they still are with parents, so it’s a sound that you hear in these places. Of course, it’s contradictory to a lot of grief and silence and pain that goes around the houses. If you walk around this neighbourhood today, inside the houses you will see images and tableaux of misery and grief, and the sound is this kind of metal machine music. But I didn’t want to step on that pedal. Down there you can hear it, with the TVs, but then no music, no, nothing else. Ventura sings a little bit of the Agnus Dei, but he gives up immediately. He was always afraid of Vitalina. He met his match. They are friends, even cousins they say, very far, second mother of the father of the second husband. But when they did things together, there was some tension, there was “acting.” Vitalina is talking about her experience, her life, she’s a little bit showing off or trying to portray some stuff, but with Ventura there was acting.
Scope: You mean they were trying to out-act each other? Showing off?
Costa: In a way. Because now Ventura has become a little bit the pro, so sometimes now he feels that, and he said, “Vitalina’s great, she’s nice, she looks good.”
Scope: Does she remind you of any other actresses?
Costa: Not yet. Maybe. You?
Scope: No. I don’t know whether I said this last time but the look, when you see her also in Horse Money also, she’s like a Black Panther, with the leather jacket…
Costa: Oh, yeah. The sound guy didn’t like it. It squeaks a lot. But that’s the jacket she wore when she stepped down the stairs of the plane. So, forever, it will be that jacket. But there’s something the other day in her eyes that reminded of…yeah, of Greed (1924), staring, not a blank stare, but staring over the camera, over everything. And very bright. Even Ventura got a little emotional. He’s not a religious guy, but even he got a little bit transported. Well, I told him, when you are going to talk, imagine one of your colleagues that died on the construction site or something. So he did, and I don’t know, maybe he got…
Scope: The Method? To move to another topic, the pacing of the movie is also interesting, in that it works on a one-level rhythm, methodical. But then you have the shock cuts to the airport, the frying pan, the pole, the roof. When you sat down to edit, did you think of that as a way of getting people outside of the space, or is it necessary to make everything a little lessdark, or depressing? Or are the punctuations are just rhythmic?
Costa: Yeah, it’s more that. I always thought that the arrival at the airport would be a sound thing more than a visual. But, at the same time, I wanted really to have some wings and planes and metal, and to be a kind of cold, cold nightmare.
Scope: But before that is a very long, dark sequence with no dialogue. It’s a total shock when that happens. It’s extremely effective, placing that scene there…
Costa: The beginning was there since the beginning. After the burial, cleaning the house of all the traces of bad things—a lot of gypsies do it, Africans do it. Different kinds of herbs, cleaning the spirits. So, yeah, it was there since I thought about the first ten, 20 minutes of the film. The idea was, actually more than that, coming home, after the burial, men coming home to their wives.
Scope: Well, it looks like a post-Civil War procession. It looked like they were, say, an army, all these guys with canes, some blood…
Costa: Sometimes we thought this is a procession of old soldiers or something. But then coming home, not wanting to, those two gangsters cleaning the house. And then Vitalina arrives in a very spectacular, noisy way, a kind of cloud of metal, and with her the film begins. She takes over, and that’s another pace. But in the beginning there are a lot of shots, and a lot of angles, and then it’s more reflexive. It’s the later half of the film that I wasn’t sure about, because of those flashbacks. I had this moment of hesitation. Should we go back? And then no, just those two shots. But for the later part of the film I was searching for something, and then I remembered this…remembered, well, I experienced it in Cape Verde, which is nothing original, but it’s exactly like Jean Rouch. I remembered this thing in Cape Verde: “The spirit of my grandmother appeared yesterday but I didn’t understand, she was speaking in Portuguese.” I said, “What, but you speak Creole?” “Yeah, but when they come, they speak in Portuguese.” So it’s a little bit like the trance and ceremonies in Jean Rouch films, when they dress up like the kings of France. All the spirits of Cape Verdeans speak in Portuguese. So, I remembered that and said, “Ah, Ventura perhaps you could teach her Portuguese so that she would be more comfortable to go work in Zara,” and they understood that perfectly. And so that gave two or three last long scenes that take you to the end. So the Bible and the poem entered in a nice way, and everything came together because if not it would even be more dark, I think. And the Judas thing came in strangely, very nicely into the picture.
Scope: Did you shoot scenes that you didn’t use?
Costa: No. That’s good, that’s happening to me a lot. As you know, I’m an avid reader of the old masters, and the other day I was reading about Henry King—not bad, you know him. He has an interview saying, “You know, we shoot 50 scenes, 50 scenes in a movie. Do not trash, do not imagine things.” It’s a bit Straubian, too.
Scope: Yeah, but Henry King didn’t shoot films over two years.
Costa: I do a lot of takes, yeah. Perhaps even more here than in Horse Money. Takes, rehearsals, camera rolling and rehearsal. Then after ten minutes, they start, everything’s in there, the preparation, the sneezes, everything, suspension, me going in the shot etc., lights. But 30 would be the number of takes, 20 let’s say, at a minimum, and then we would do variations.
Scope: Variations on the dialogue? Or gestures.
Costa: More the gestures, posture, and very small things, ways of looking, head turning—nothing spectacular, but it helped a lot to understand what I like, what I don’t like, what they could do better. We probably have ten shots that are random, that don’t belong here or there, beginnings of things, nothing special. It’s the contrary of not knowing where we are going—there’s nothing of that, it’s very, very concentrated, and then we finish that scene and it seems solid or competent, we go to another scene. I never, never go to something that I don’t try. When we begin trying I’m pretty sure that we’re going to get it. But that comes with Ventura, Vanda, Vitalina, even the secondary guys, they give me the confidence. Either I’m too irresponsible or too lucky, I don’t know.
Scope: I think in talking about Colossal Youth you mentioned that you went back to scenes months later.
Costa: But that’s different. In Vanda it happened a lot too. In Vanda there’s that one thing that I wanted to do when they were too emotional, and then months later I went back and they were fine. That can happen. In this film, less. You know, Vanda was younger, drugs are something else. They give you a kind of strange energy in a certain way, so she was there like a horse during the film. Even if Vitalina’s very strong, it was always about coming back to this dark moment. He died, he escaped, he didn’t talk, he wasn’t there, he’s a coward, they’re all cowards, etc. So, we were a little bit careful with that because she got really tired…just imagine the shots where she confesses. It’s painful for us. Barbara Stanwyck would do it five times and then say, “Let’s go, guys, have a drink at Musso’s.” Not Vitalina. She would continue for ten minutes, half an hour, and then we had to leave and close the door, and it was really painful to watch that, and to be there. There’s no way you can comfort her. So, no, in this one we didn’t go back.
But with Ventura it was different. I think he felt, or I felt, that it could be the other side of Horse Money. In Horse Money he’s unsure, trembling, fragile, dying, and in this one he’s quite sure. I mean, it’s lost. He tells them, “I know the book, I know the text, I know the code. But it’s lost. I can tell you, but it’s no use.” So he has this confidence, that I see it in two or three shots at the end, when he’s telling her the story that Judas is always really the master, he knows he won’t convince anyone, but…he was telling it to himself, to convince himself. Sometimes when I see the shot he’s trying to go back to some kind of horizon or faith or happiness or something. It was very spectacular for us to see him do that. There was a transformation, and it was really different, he felt it. He said, “Oh, no more pajamas, no more soldier,” so this was kind of a relief in a way. And even when he’s saying, “I lost my faith, this is very sad, nobody helped, this is a dark hole,” he says it with a kind of almost satisfaction.
Scope: You’ll like this question: the scene of Vitalina on the roof.
Costa: When she’s up there? With the wind?
Scope: Green screen?
Scope: Is that the only time?
Costa: Yeah. We tried rear projection, and it didn’t work that well because it was too dark to have the sky move and I wanted the sky to move. But that was a big space, and we got a lot of wind because we had an airplane engine. That’s what they use apparently. A guy came with a truck, it’s powerful, huh, and then Vitalina said a wonderful thing: “You are just kids, you don’t know, back home when there’s wind, we really have some demons there. This is kids’ stuff.” Yeah, but, first I thought there could also be rain, but it was too difficult. But action things for her are easy: she’s used to it, no problem.
Scope: She liked hitting her head?
Costa: She loves that.
Scope: Bricks falling down in the shower.
Costa: That happened to her. She says, “If I was not a black lady with this hair, I would be dead now.” I’m sure she would. So, it’s all true.
Scope: What didn’t happen to her, is the question?
Costa: Yes, exactly. To them…it’s not only her. It’s like Cluny Brown (1946), Curse of the Demon (1957). I wonder what comes next.
Scope: Well, can it get darker?
Costa: Why not? Are you against darkness?
Costa: It can get brighter, who knows. We’ll see.
Scope: Like you said, it would be brighter if you shot in Cape Verde again.
Costa: Not sure. Some Anthony Mann Westerns are quite dark…they are. Exterior day, but quite dark, quite strange. The wider, the stranger. I don’t know, we’ll see.
Pedro Costa, Vitalina Varela