Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Vitalina Varela - A Text by Yannick Haenel


by Yannick Haenel


(translated from the French by Craig Keller)

My friends, before it leaves the big screen, rush to see Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela: this is very important. We can all agree: the cinema in its near totality has turned to shit, is soulless, has sold out to that hysterical movie-trailer factory which only produces images of our tolerance for junk. But a few filmmakers find unscathed images: images that, through their political dignity, through their poetic rectitude, cut themselves off from tawdry hell; among these filmmakers, there is Pedro Costa.

Vitalina Varela deboards a plane barefoot. A chorus of cleaning-women inform her that she’s arriving too late; her husband has been buried three days prior. “Go back home,” the chorus intones. But Vitalina Varela was waiting for more than twenty years in Cape Verde for her husband, emigrated to Portugal, to send her a plane ticket. She’s here, and she’s here to stay; she’ll reside in the dead man’s house; will enter the unveiling of this darkness that grips Cova da Moura, that gerry-rigged poverty-stricken neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, which seems a necropolis. 

The roof is rotting, the door won’t close all the way, men walk inside without knocking. Vitalina Varela gets dressed at nighttime; the whites of her eyes tear through the darkness: anger is a form of resistance.

Between life and death there opens a gap where pain speaks. This is where it all takes place: cinema is possible here, like poetry. A knife comes closer to our throats at every instant: we are expendable; the women and men escaping execution are devoted. After Buchenwald and Dachau, Robert Antelme had this to say: “We can no longer tolerate being touched; we feel ourselves to be sacred.” Vitalina, since her period of mourning and her revolt, is sacred — separate: she speaks to the dead, to her dead one. 

Those women and men who have been sacrificed by Western horror, the victims of colonial dump-off, like the Black workers from Cape Verde such as Vitalina, live at the heart of this chasm in which light and dark tear themselves apart. Pedro Costa films from this darkness that is the state of sacrificed light; and all the splendor of the film comes from the arrivals of light that deliver themselves from the dark background. When the heart thinks, darkness vanishes into thin air. A different house is constructed in the blue pleasure of the mountains. Repairing the roofing is an act of love.

A sick and trembling priest, whose church has been abandoned, tells Vitalina that the world has broken since Judas’s kiss. The cheek he kissed remains obscure: “It’s from these shadows that we’ve been made,” he says. But the nocturnal density enveloping Vitalina’s body in her house lends her an aura: she belongs to the light of the other cheek: that which has not been touched by Judas. It’s the radiant cheek: its light is the political force that gives back life to the sacrificed. •


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