Cinema Must Be a Ritual: Pedro Costa Discusses "Vitalina Varela"

In a long conversation, Pedro Costa talks about working with his heroine, his unique style of production, and the economics of his cinema.
Daniel Kasman

Compared to almost all contemporary cinema Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela stands out as a film that takes more risk, runs the most difficult course of existence, and is devoted with every ounce of its being to the compassionate transmission of another’s experience. It premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival last August, where it deservedly won the top prize, the Golden Leopard, and Varela, its heroine, won best actress. The Portuguese filmmaker’s last feature, Horse Money, won the Best Director award in Locarno in 2014, and while this new film doesn’t have the imaginative range of that masterpiece—which was rendered in a remarkable pulses of memories, dreams, nightmares, and history—and while it feels somewhat uneven in its editing despite its compellingly singular subject, Vitalina Varela is nevertheless a film of fierce determination and paramount resonance.

Those familiar with Horse Money will undoubtably remember an astounding monologue in that film by a striking African woman who recounts how she traveled for the first time ever to Lisbon from her home in Cape Verde to attend the funeral of her husband, who had emigrated there years before and never sent for her. After an arduous journey of much suffering, she arrived too late: the body had already been buried. Costa’s new film brings this woman forward to re-tell and re-live this horrendous limbo of arriving in a foreign land to join a man, her love, and finding only an absence, a void, the gloom of the slums, and the unkindness of strangers. This profoundly, empathetically suffocating new film, Vitalina Varela, is boldly named after its protagonist—the last so-named was the filmmaker’s landmark documentary, In Vanda’s Room (2000), which saw Costa radically transform his productions into more intimate and respectful endeavors that use collaboration between actors and director and an ethic of daily group labor. Together, Costa and his collaborators work to produce films that hauntingly transform the real lives and stories of Cape Verde immigrants living in Lisbon’s slums into a monumental, otherworldly cinema of ghosts, dreams, fear, pain, and longing.

After a nightmarish sequences of somnolent men trudging under the crosses of an urban cemetery and dispersing into the netherworld of their night-shrouded neighborhood, entering an unknown home where blood is splattered on the bed’s pillow, and proceeding to rifle through pockets, sweep up the scene, and burn mementos, we see a tremendous, definitive vision: The vivid figure of a woman standing in an airplane doorway on the tarmac, the planes lit like giant futurist beasts of unknown origin. Vitalina Varela has arrived. But reality quickly meets her; in a devastating reverse shot, she is welcomed by a group of black women, all service workers at the airport, who tell her she missed the funeral, her husband’s house isn’t hers—that she has nothing. A wake without a body, a love story without her partner, a return without an invitation, Vitalina Varela’s tale is quickly related to us, and what remains for the film to show is the isolation, the insomniac darkness that surrounds the widow’s house, the man after man who enter her home to mourn but do nothing to welcome or comfort, and the anger and lamentation over the missing years, the mysterious life in Portugal of her husband, the profound insult of never sending for her.

In her sorrow and loneliness Vitalina is drawn to a priest in the neighborhood. He is played by Ventura, Costa’s regular actor, collaborator, and muse, who, unusually, is not playing a version of his own life but rather that of another. His character is a trembling, fallen priest who doubts his faith, is wracked with guilt over past wrongs, presides over an empty congregation in his metal shack in the slums, and has turned to drink, finding himself flat on the ground murmuring to himself in the dark. The performance is astounding, Ventura embodying the torment of another, but in some sense this character feels like an undue interruption, taking away from the film’s pointed devotion to its solitary woman. Yet the appeal of a man of sympathy and spirit who tries to keeping standing while her own is gone and buried is what draws Vitalina to the priest. This man, this body, absorbs some of Vitalina’s pain, but for her the absence of her husband is too great. The film resolves no narrative dilemma, but rather is devoted to an anguished documentary expressionism in order to immerse us in the space—mental, spiritual, and social—of its grieving yet impressively resilient heroine. In an inconceivably moving gesture, the film grants her two visions of Cape Verde, rare glimpses of daylight amid the pools of rich darkness that saturate the spartan, devastatingly impoverished and ramshackle slums. Whether flashbacks to the origin of everything, memories of being home with her love, fantasies of what never was, or the introduction of a new woman, a new couple, and a new generation who may be condemned to repeat Vitalina Varela’s path of happiness lost, these moments of youth, of daylight, of the mountains of the African islands nevertheless feels like granting this lone woman a much needed benediction.

The evening of the film's premiere in Locarno, Pedro Costa graciously spoke with us at length about his first encounter and working with his heroine, his unique style of production, and the economics of his cinema. The filmmaker also generously provided us photographs from the film and from the shoot that have not yet been published.

NOTEBOOK: How did you first meet Vitalina?

PEDRO COSTA: I was three-quarters into shooting Horse Money and I was thinking of doing this series of shots, interior shots, of people in their houses, a remembrance of the old Fontainhas neighborhood. I wanted to do a sequence that could be a kind of musical offering. But I couldn’t find that many houses anymore, the neighborhood was almost completely destroyed, demolished, most of the people had been relocated in several social building blocks. And then a friend told me to come to Cova da Moura, which was not very far from the area where I usually shoot. This place is a different African neighborhood, a bit more conventional, not as traditional as the old Fontainhas. But he thought that there were two or three houses and some people who I might like.

NOTEBOOK: What do you mean by “conventional”?

COSTA: Well, conventional in the sense that it was much more acculturated. With no tradition or any feeling of community whatsoever. It's a mix of modest provincial houses built by white migrants that came from the north of Portugal to Lisbon and some islands of African immigration that arrived in the ‘70s. White and black people still live quite separate lives but there’s a small center of that neighborhood that sort-of looked like the African houses that had been built in the other places. So I went to visit. I was trying to describe what I was searching and he said: "there’s this house, but the guy just died"—actually, he painted a very dark picture of Vitalina’s husband, as a bit of a gangster, a strange guy—"but he died, and the house has been closed since, so I don’t know... but perhaps we can kick the door in?" As soon as he said that and pointed at the house, the door opened, and Vitalina was at the doorstep, all dressed in black, in mourning. It's a moment that will stay with me forever. This was 2013. She had arrived five, six months before, she had been inside that house more or less closed from almost everything. She had not many contacts in that neighborhood, she had some cousins and a sister but not in Lisbon, quite far away. She didn’t speak Portuguese; she didn’t have papers. She was afraid. And the neighbors were not very friendly, because, you know, this is not paradise. They are extremely suspicious. They have reasons for that, but they are really harsh among themselves: who’s this new woman? what's her purpose? I mean, her next-door neighbor, still today after I shot for months at her house, he’s still a bit closed to her. So, she appeared at the doorstep dressed in black. I asked her gently if she would let me see her house, and I tried to explain the reason for our interest, the film, et cetera. I felt she was afraid we were from the immigration office or something. But she was very kind and accepted. I came back the next day and I went a step further and proposed her to be in the shot, just standing or sitting. We talked a bit and I thought she liked our company—it was just a feeling. And in the course of our conversation I discovered that she’s a very far-removed cousin of Ventura. So they met—they’d never seen each other—and they liked each other and Ventura told her: don't be afraid, come with us, you'll enjoy the shootings. He really helped. So she came with us, and not only did she do her part in Horse Money, but she came every day just to be a part of the team, to help us with things. 

NOTEBOOK: She became a part of the community of the shoot?

COSTA: Yeah, Ventura is also a lot with us even when he's not shooting. Anyway, working the way I do, without scripts, shooting schedules, daily call sheets, et cetera, I never know if he's going to shoot tomorrow or not. As he likes to say, he's retired and doesn't have much else to do, so... he's always part of the crew. And she helped a lot. I feel safe with my two main actors next to me.

NOTEBOOK: The story of this film really surprised me, because I remember Vitalina’s scene very well from Horse Money, her monologue and this gesture of her putting her hand on Ventura’s trembling hand. This new film seems to have penetrated that monologue, gone back in time, and then opened it up. It was like a flashback expansion from inside the world of Horse Money. At what point did you know that the little kernel of the story—that Vitalina arrived in Lisbon too late, that she missed the funeral—was something you wanted to stretch out and spend time in?

COSTA: I think the film was born the moment I met Vitalina. That moment I already described: a voice whispering me that a man was dead and then this apparition, this woman in black opening the door and staring me straight in the eyes. That meeting was very powerful. But I suspected that the work could be terrifying. I believed that it was going to be about the time it takes to say goodbye to someone. Which is a long time, as we all know... And that you'll have to learn how to say goodbye. 

You see, in a strange way, this film also gave Vitalina the chance to "properly" say goodbye to her husband. You remember that in Horse Money she told the story of her arrival in Lisbon: she was three days late to his funeral. She was broken. The fact that she couldn't be present at the church, at the wake, at the cemetery. She couldn’t see his face for the last time, she couldn’t touch him, she couldn’t feel him, or see what suit was he wearing or how he was combed... I've been around Cape Verdians long enough to know that these ceremonies and rituals are vital to them. Just last month I went with Vitalina to a funeral of a mutual friend, who happens to be one of the men in the wake, in the film, and Vitalina completely embraced his body in the coffin. It's not only the soul and its remembrance.  Remember Mikkel's words in Ordet? "But her body, I loved her body, too." Not seeing his husband's body go in the ground did not appease her, she was left bitter and angry. And moreover, between them, a lot of things remained unsaid. I confess I was afraid of imagining the confinement of this woman for months in this small house, going completely crazy and being ostracized by her own community. I have to say that it was Vitalina's will to do the film that made me persevere, I couldn't bear this one alone... But there were a lot of things I didn’t want to get into: was her husband a gangster, drug dealer, a decent, working man? Did someone kill him, did he kill himself? Stories like these are our daily bread in these places. The borders between intimate or secret and public or social are very thin and not really always understandable.

NOTEBOOK: This idea of secrecy and sharing the private, for me it begs the question of—and I don’t want to burden you with interpreting Vitalina’s motivation—why would she want to re-live and revisit, or re-imagine this time that sounds so isolating and crushingly dark by making this film with you?

COSTA: I was overwhelmed by the story [from Horse Money] of her arrival flight to Lisbon, it’s so intimate, so private. And the simple fact that she wanted to share with me this pain, this moment, this four-hour flight, to explain her turmoil, gave me a lot of strength to start working on the possibility of an entire film with her. In the beginning, when we were talking about the moments that would constitute the film, when I was quietly sitting in her room hearing her plaint, I remember telling her: "Vitalina, you have to understand that all of this will be in the film, this will be the film."  And she said, "You must!" And I know it was not only to me that she was telling it, it also influenced our crew of five. Never before has a shoot had such a ceremonial aspect for me as this one. And I mean ceremonial in a good way. It blended perfectly with my conviction that cinema must be a ritual. She prepared the small altar for Joaquim, with the candles, the plastic flowers, and the photographs, and all of us in the crew we entertained it during months and months. Slowly, she begun to let go of her black clothes: first a colored scarf, then a blouse, little by little. This mourning is quite strict and heavy in almost every African culture; as it is for Portuguese or Southern Europeans and Mediterraneans. 

Above: Shooting test. Photo by Vitor Carvalho

NOTEBOOK: Day to day do you work without a script? Or do you have an overall story?

COSTA: I have bits and pieces. It begins with mystery and desire. And every time it's very frightening. You'll never know if it will be possible, if we'll reach the end. And on other times, it's the opposite feeling, I think that I'll be shooting and working on the same film for the rest of my life. On this one, I felt both possibilities, even if Vitalina was always there for me, very concrete and collaborative. The films around Ventura were also frightening, but maybe there was a wider part of unknown. When I met him in Fontainhas, he wandered through the alleys singing and rambling to himself—like he does in this film—the first times I talked with him I thought, "this man is a deep, black pit and I'll never reach the bottom." With Ventura it was difficult because what I couldn't understand or point out what I felt vaguely couldn't be transposed vaguely to the film. A film doesn't admit vagueness. It will not stand. There's less danger with Vitalina, she's more down to earth.

NOTEBOOK: Are you collaborating, then, with Vitalina on an almost anecdotal basis? Based on the way she was, or is, living?

COSTA: I've always had the feeling that I cannot take anything from anyone, rob anything. At the same time, I cannot offer much. This is the contract. Otherwise, I don't think we could shoot for such a long time and go through all this strange sentimental routine. People wouldn't reveal themselves. It's what you could call trust. They have to be seriously interested in the work. Of course, then, there’s the community, but I believe that the closer you get to someone's intimacy the stronger the collective will appear. A lot of secrets will remain secret and that's your job too. A film is just a surface. You shouldn't be disappointed, in the end, it’s not more than the surface...

NOTEBOOK: Do you see that in putting the film together after you’ve shot it, or you see that as it’s being made and manifesting?

COSTA: I can't see anything before. There is no before for me. I'm not one of those who can dream or imagine or draw their films. As you know, we're four or five, we have so much work everyday that I have no time to imagine or invent fake problems. It can also be quite painful because, you know, there is no relief until the end, and even in the end…

NOTEBOOK: What was it like for Ventura to play the most fictional character in your work together?

COSTA: I wanted Ventura to be in the film. I needed it. Vitalina needed him too. I didn’t know how, if there was space or place. Then one day Vitalina told me that a few weeks after she arrived, she went out at dusk and her goal was to find the cemetery, which is not very far. She just wanted to locate it, she didn’t want anyone to guide her. And she saw this guy walking down the street and she felt an urge to follow him. And this guy led her to the local church... And so it began: "Ventura could be this man and you could follow him to church." And then Vitalina remembered an old story from her village in Cabo Verde: "there was this priest back home, a very troubled boy, and I’ll tell you this story..." And she told me that he had lost his way because he didn't want to baptize a group of people and sent them to another parish. They left in a van, they crashed just a few miles down the road and they all died. The priest lost his mind and his faith, was "dismissed" to Portugal and became a homeless in the streets of Lisbon. He's still alive, it seems. Ventura's eyes twinkled with malice when I proposed it to him. He knew this case quite well, he even claims he met the guy a long time ago. He hates priests. And he liked it, maybe because this time it was not only about his own personal hell. It was…

NOTEBOOK: Somebody else’s torment?

COSTA: Yes. We worked a lot, Ventura worked hard on that [church] mass, a lot of takes, a delicate work that lasted for several days. I remember the moment when he says “The memory of your immigrant life: it’s poison!” I remember telling him to shout it, to be severe and aggressive. And my amazement realizing that on every take he became more and more compassionate. Without ever losing a certain violence. Once more, he took it upon himself, he made it his own.

During the whole shoot he became Father Ventura at Casal da Boba, where he lives! [Laughs] And I’m sure they will all look up to him again, in awe, in admiration, just like when they saw him for the first time in Colossal Youth and commented, "how come we always see you drunk and dirty in the hood and then, up there on the screen, you become all of us?!"

Someone asked me the other day: how can he achieve such a work? And this was someone from the milieu. This gives you an idea of how low the bar is nowadays, the state we're in.

NOTEBOOK: There’s this collision between Vitalina’s true story and Ventura’s fictional character, to put it in the simplest terms. This is a new construction for you.

COSTA: Well, not really, in every film there has always been some sort of fantasy serving some sort of reality.

It's the example of Ventura working this delirium and bringing it closer to his own experience, to Vitalina's and to that of the whole community of immigrants. You could say there's a big part of irresponsibility working this way, but, at least, if I’m true to Vitalina, if I follow her guidance, memories, feelings, we will be safe. Shooting like we do, for a whole year or more, the routine sets in quite differently than that of a conventional seven week shoot; the practical, daily work gets in charge of the intellect and of the hesitations and the most profound doubts. It’s priceless.

NOTEBOOK: This was your first substantial collaboration with an actress since In Vanda’s Room, nearly twenty years ago. What was it like building such a large world again with a woman?

COSTA: It was great.

NOTEBOOK: Is it different?

COSTA: A little bit, yeah. In a way, it was just the right moment for Vitalina to have appeared at that doorstep. I was living in a man's world for two or three films already! I felt that I had a new opportunity of shifting to a woman's point of view on this community of immigrants. This history is a men's tale: men depart, leaving their women behind, sometimes with children. After a few months, a year or two, most men forget their wives, their sweethearts. Promises are broken.There's never enough to put money aside. They forget to write, they forget to call. Or they meet someone else and they find themselves with two families: one back in the new country and one waiting back in the islands. It's a sad statistical cliché.  

So I began working with Vitalina in her room, sitting on the bed, hearing her story, memories. I think I felt protected. It was warmer. Then the execution, the filming work was… I wouldn’t say it was more difficult than with the others, but... maybe because we were always dealing with the departed, with the other side, calling long distance. It demanded a little more silence, or patience. With Vitalina, a shot grows in a special way, she'll grow on it until she will possess it entirely. And, as usual, I believe that we'll need a lot of takes to get there. I need it and she needs it.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve making films with this methodology, this approach for some time now, since Colossal Youth, let’s say. Do you feel like now you have the method—

COSTA: No, no.

NOTEBOOK: —or is it always in flux? You’re always finding your way, different people, different situations…

COSTA: It’s what I was trying to tell you before: routine is the adventure, it's a risk and I would be a fool if I wouldn't take it. We're much more in the world, at his mercy, dependent of its humors and ups and downs, than on the pages of a screenplay.

Because there’s Vanda, there’s Ventura, there’s Vitalina and they are all different individualities. But unlike Vitalina, I'm weak, I have no faith at all, so I need this ritual, our the day-by-day search, discipline, attempt.

NOTEBOOK: Whenever you talk about this practice it always sounds like you’ve arrived at your approach ethically. That you’ve found this method in order to be the most just with your subjects and collaborate the most fully. However, whenever you’re talking about making these films it always sounds very uncomfortable or that you’re afraid.

COSTA: I don't think “uncomfortable” is the word. It is difficult. This film life I chose for me is not easy. But never once in my recent experience—I mean at least since In Vanda's Room—have I had the feeling of confronting the usual endemic obstacles of the profession: the brutality, the cynicism, the blindness... Long ago, I decided to jump out of that train. Now I think we're only dealing with our own difficulties and our own real problems. You know, it's an awful set-up, we all read it in some interview, the uncomfortability of this business sometimes manifests itself as early as when the poor director is getting out of the assistant's car to walk into the set...  Anyway, I usually take the train or the bus, and it serves me quite well, it’s a quiet moment and you can think a bit. And then it's work. Work that produces more work. There’s so much to do. And yes, it’s difficult, it’s tense, it can be hard. If you place your camera in front of Ventura or Vitalina you must be prepared to face your own solitude. It's like the other guy says, "you should put your skin on the table." Plus the weight or the lightness and the humors of the day... You better be serious. And sometimes you better be scared [laughs]. But I guess the moment that I'm most uncomfortable, let's say, apprehensive, is when they see the film. When Vitalina saw it for the first time, I thought it was going to be an emotional cataclysm... But it was quite serene. And then we all watched her watching it, here in Locarno, and she said, “so this film has my name?” We were a bit puzzled... And she told me: “I could have given you a better title."

NOTEBOOK: Day in and day out it sounds quite grueling. Are you all happy on the set sometimes, is it cathartic?

COSTA: Sometimes.

NOTEBOOK: Where does the positive energy come from to do keep working tomorrow?

COSTA: From the conviction that everybody is interested in what they're doing. Not only in front of the camera but behind it. And even the people around us. That's a very powerful motor that keeps the thing running. We don't have much money so that's not the reason. Nor fame or any other bizarre fantasy. I always say I have to wear two caps all the time: I have to contribute to do the best film I can and I have to make a stand for our way of working, to keep reaffirming, film after film, that it is possible for cinema to exist on these terms and conditions. And trying to keep it tight, concentrated. The crew is small, we’re five or six, sometimes less. On some heavy nights we'll call for extra help. We were very conscious that it was going to be a painful moment for Vitalina, so everyone was very gentle and respectful. Considering the part of the unknown and darkness that awaited us all, I really felt it was a very serious shoot. You see, I always defended and fought for a kind of production that can assume and take up all the irrationality and irresponsibility that a film is also made of. And I'm very lucky with the guys I work with… and, in a way, they all fell in love with Vitalina too. There is no other way of working.

NOTEBOOK: Do you see the existence of this film as a resistance and push-back to the neighborhood and her isolation there?

COSTA: Of course. I felt it quite vividly while shooting in Vitalina's kitchen, in her bedroom, while she was blaming her dead husband and all those "drunken, lazy sad men": the stronger she could express and affirm her grief, the more effective our revenge would be. The more singular the pain, the more political. This woman’s closed existence had to be turned into a communal affair. Because immigrant women, and not only in that community, suffer much more than men. They stay behind, they wait, they are betrayed and forgotten. In a way, the whole film prepares for that moment when she'll decide to step out of the house into the sunlight.

Above: Shooting test. Photo by Vitor Carvalho

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of Vitalina’s isolation, you are again shooting in real and very cramped spaces. How do you and your team work lighting these interiors?

COSTA: Again, before the real work starts, I don't see much of anything... I didn’t know that the film would be so dark, so nocturnal. Vitalina had told me that she couldn't sleep at night. For weeks and weeks. And she kept her door half-closed for most of the day, so daylight came in scarcely, just through cracks and holes. And we're filming inside an architecture that breaks and bends and reflects almost every ray of sunlight. Even so, we had no idea that it would be so arduous. The first step was to determine what kind of lighting equipment we would use, something we could afford for at least one year... [Cinematographer] Leonardo Simões proposed this parallel light beam system which is just about one source of light that is redirected through mirrors and reflectors of variable densities. It was a very good choice: economic, small, no heavy big stuff around. And a much nicer light than the usual LED floods. This is already half of the work, deciding on the right equipment. And then I think we always work in a very traditional manner. I've worked the same way in my other films: you light the actor, you light the gesture or the movement, you do it element by element, piece by piece, always with a very good knowledge of the spaces you're working in. And we can always adjust the light during the making of a shot: the first take can be very different from the 30th. We can work on it for days, we can work on a scene for weeks. Most of the times we don't give up. Time is not our enemy.

NOTEBOOK: When you say 30 takes, are you frequently shooting a large number?

COSTA: Yes, we need to do takes. Vitalina needs it. Ventura needs it. I need it too. Even the crew needs it. Warhol now comes to mind, just by opposition or contradiction. I guess that there was no separation for him, not even this traditional division in takes: preparing the shot and filming the shot itself was part of the same routine. A year or so after I finished In Vanda's Room I saw Beauty No. 2 [1965], which is a short one-hour film with Edie Sedgwick and some guy on a bed, and I realized that Warhol succeeded in one hour what I did in one year...  And he shows it: he’s framing, reframing, finding his camera position and his point of view, rehearsing with the actors, conversing, concentrating. I think we even hear his voice "directing," talking with the actors. Whatever he is shooting, we could say that it's always the final preparatory rehearsal for a film to be shot... It’s shows a lot of things. It even shows how you make a film—or, like Henri Langlois said, how not to make a film. I felt that we shared this ritual. Sometimes between the first and the second take we can spend two days working on the light, the dialogue, the way she sits, the framing. It's never static.

NOTEBOOK: Do you usually find yourself using the final takes of that process? Or after going through that process do you sometimes use earlier versions?

COSTA: Sometimes [laughs]. But, in general, I have the feeling that the last ones are better than the first ones. When the meat begins to be well done...

Above: Shooting test. Photo by Vitor Carvalho

NOTEBOOK: Usually you’re building towards something until it feels right?

COSTA: It's quite an effort. But I'm sure that any filmmaker or actor or DP, anyone, given the chance, would like to work this way. I'm a great believer in Chaplin's method of "rehearsal on film." You know that he used to film all his work, everything he did, and that included all the rehearsals with the actors, with himself. It was his method of clearing the way or discovering things just by studying the details and variations from one take to another. He could do it because he was the richest, most powerful director in the world, the boss of his own studio. I started doing it in In Vanda's Room because I was recording MiniDV tapes, it was more than affordable. Guess what? In just a few years they've managed to make our life much harder, they've almost taken away this possibility from us: with the amount of "information" in 4K, 8K, et cetera, you'd have to be a multimillionaire to buy all the so-called memory and to stock it. All that talk about the democratization of digital is long forgotten, isn't it? It also shows you how passive and weak filmmakers really are when confronting the powers that rule the game, whether they're technological, distributors, sales agents, et cetera. Anyway, yes, we keep filming because of Vitalina, Ventura, Vanda—we continue so that they might keep their tension on the highest possible level, to see where they can take their their performance. The light can be influential but I don't think it's decisive. It can determine a lot of nuances, sometimes even a few changes. Actually, in this film it happened once or twice: we changed directions in the middle of shooting because I thought that an idea of lighting would improve not only the shot and the scene but even Vitalina's performance. It was never easy or obvious how to light this story.

NOTEBOOK: Because of how nocturnal it is?

COSTA: Because we can't invent or create the light. No one can. Even the usual expression that DPs and filmmakers often use, "to work the light," is a bit ridiculous, isn't it? Our aim is to work from our own memory and recreate ambiances and situations that we experienced ourselves in those locations, which left strong traces in our minds and our eyes. They're a sort of recollections of light and shadows. And this is another reason why we need to spend so much time on a film. We need to know those places, we need to live them. But there's another reason that brought the film to the side of the night: the sound. Cova da Moura, where we shot, like every African neighborhood, is a very resonant, noisy place. For every scene with dialogue or any shot with a monologue we had to wait for some silence and we usually had to begin shooting not before 10 or 11 at night, when the neighbors were going to bed. 

Above: Shooting test. Photo by Vitor Carvalho

NOTEBOOK: It was frequently so dark that it becomes difficult to tell if it’s night or day.

COSTA: I don't think it made any difference to Vitalina if she was living a day or a night. She told me she was barely alive. Let's say she was living a nightmare, maybe not hell, more like a gloomy purgatory... And we were not forced to follow any kind of chronology, we were never afraid of matching—and the soundtrack could take care of that continuity. That was the idea.

NOTEBOOK: Do you do a lot of work on the imagery in post-production?

COSTA: One might think so because I give big credit to Gonçalo Ferreira, the grader whom I work with. He has become fundamental because in digital, the spectrum of grading possibilities, or color correction, is much wider. You can go beyond the primary colors. It’s not about radically changing the colors or engaging in very special effects. This time we shot in 4K, so you can do almost anything, zooming, reframing [gestures framing a large composition] and going like this [shrinks composition to a smaller size]. We don’t do those kind of things. We keep concentrated on color, on contrast, on density. For instance, our shadows are much blacker than in most films. It's like that poem by Georg Trackl, "to obscure obscurity."

NOTEBOOK: If you know you’re going to be doing that work later, how does that impact the image you’re creating on set, or what you’re looking at in the monitor while you’re there?

COSTA: We always aim to achieve a final image. What we’re shooting, the lighting we work on is what we think is going to be the final thing. Then, in post-production, Gonçalo and myself, we discuss and try to enhance some details: what if we pull up this sun ray here or turn down that lamp there ? You can reinforce some areas of darkness and areas of brightness. Take the shot of the bathroom, when Vitalina is sitting on the toilet telling about the construction of the house in Cabo Verde. This idea of harsh brightness, we decided to pull up the reflected light on the mirror behind her.

NOTEBOOK: When I first saw that shot, there was so much light was coming from the mirror that I thought what I was seeing was a window.

COSTA: In reality it’s a patch of sun on the bathroom wall reflected in the mirror. I guess we started like everybody else with a simple, basic problem: how many ways are there to light a bathroom? And we tried different ways of lighting that space while Vitalina was sitting on the toilet trying different takes on her four minute monologue. Again, it was just like Chaplin's way: we rehearsed it while we filmed it, and finally, we saw it! At last, I saw what I had already seen ten thousand times: at a certain hour of the day, for about four minutes, there's a tunnel of blinding light in that bathroom. It's reflected in the mirror behind her. Let’s play with this violence, let's see if it can help us. It forces you to be much more aware of Vitalina's movements. They are somewhat restrained but they are there. And it forces you to see that she isn't crying! Sometimes you need a certain violence to actually see things. This also tells us that we’re slow. Everybody is. We just don't hide it.

NOTEBOOK: How long was this shoot?

COSTA: We agreed on a Monday to Saturday plan. Maybe for eight, nine months, I'm not really sure. These are days when the camera is present, we are all present, but these are also days when we're not shooting, because someone is not well or we're searching for another alley to shoot because we thought about a new scene, or because one of us has to go with Vitalina to the Social Security Office or to a doctor's appointment with Ventura. My experience of years within this practice tells me that these "side activities" not only have their own rightful place in our economy but that they can also be essential in fueling the imaginary, fictional work of the film. They will inform and form the film. For instance, when we're not shooting, our sound director would be recording sounds in the neighborhood. It's a great way to get rich, diverse ambient sounds for our sound editing, and at the same time, it's a nice way for him to get to know the neighborhood better, to know the people, to enter their homes.

NOTEBOOK: The sound mix I thought was very interesting. There’s so much off-screen community I heard throughout. For me, it had this odd sensation of isolating Vitalina further, making me aware that this lonely space is completely surrounded by people, even though we’re not seeing them.

COSTA: Yes, exactly. In a way, it's close to the work we did in In Vanda’s Room. Actually, this film has a lot to do with Vanda, not only because it’s a woman's story but a story of confinement. It's not only the sensation that the sounds are isolating Vitalina, it's that the sheer magnitude of her tragedy cast the "others," the neighbors, the community, back to a secondary plane. With women we're more able to sense the materiality of a certain clausura. Maybe because with men there is always a slightly pathetic drama that shows, a cowardice which is rare with women. Just think of all the Naruses, Dreyer, Europe '51 [1952]even 7 Women [1966].

NOTEBOOK: What’s the feeling like for you, the difference between being in this community on-set, building this project slowly, and then when it’s done and it’s you and your editor, or you and the grader by yourself in a room editing, putting it together, isolated, in a way, with less people around you?

COSTA: As the years pass, it changed. Like most filmmakers, I love editing. It’s so strange. Not even Godard can put his finger on it [laughs]. But more and more, it’s becoming quite painful. It’s because Ventura and Vitalina and all the others, they work so hard, they offer you so much. We watch a take and then we watch another take. When we choose a certain take, my heart breaks because we could have three or four or ten more—and what about that one? Still today, when I think back about Ventura's work on the mass, if you could just see the other takes of that shot... I swear that a lot of them have their own special moments, a phrasing, or a music, or a pace. That’s the most painful. To decide which one is the best. To choose. To forget the others. I defy all the John Fords in the world not to feel the same anxiety. Editing has become a difficult stage. And it might get worse because I know I'm not a landscape filmmaker, I will always depend on human presence and human movement in my films.

NOTEBOOK: That must be one reason why Straub and Huillet released multiple versions of some of their films, using different takes, no?

COSTA: Absolutely. Renoir did it too. One day perhaps, I should go back to those other takes and try other versions. Of course, there are lots of takes where Vitalina and Ventura are “not there,” but nobody ever will see that. Like nobody ever saw Cary Grant’s worst moments. That’s our job, to do justice to the work they did. You don’t think too much about it when you’re shooting. Sometimes you feel that a certain take was really special—just like you said, it can be a cathartic moment. But, just in case, let’s do another one. 

NOTEBOOK: Are you editing in any way as you’re shooting or is it all after you’ve decided somehow this is what we need, we have what we need?

COSTA: There is always something missing. You'd better accept and move on. I like to be surprised by reality. I'm always a bit dependent. For me, there’s much more than just the shooting or the editing: there’s Ventura’s health, there's Vitalina's papers, all the waiting rooms and court houses and infirmaries and corridors that they have to walk through. I think cinema is also there for them not to walk alone. Sometimes I wonder if it was just a film, would I bother?

NOTEBOOK: Would it be indiscreet to ask you about the economics of making a film like this?

COSTA: The film was funded in its totality with Portuguese money, mainly with the support of the Portuguese Film Institute, an aid from the Lisbon City Council, a participation of Portuguese Public Television, and a small grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation. That would make a total of around 600,000 Euros. But I must stress that we managed to get part of the funding for Vitalina Varela while we were still working on Horse Money, a film for which we had only 90,000 Euros. This means that we did the two films for around 700,000 Euros! 350,000 Euros each: Not bad, for films that have a certain dignity in terms of sound and image and interest. Considering the scandalous inflation in which most of filmmaking swims... We have no co-production offers. I guess because all the potential interested partners will finally come to their senses and say, "this will be like the other films, same stuff, same characters." And, in a way, they're not wrong. The film funding world is not made for this kind of work: if I'd want to apply for money in the fiction category, I'd have to confess I don’t have the required imagination [laughs]. I can apply to a documentary fund but these ones, as we all know, will give you ten times less money. Anyway, our general idea is to secure a budget that will allow us to pay the salaries of the crew and the actors, for at least one year. Monthly wages. We own most of the equipment we use: the camera, the lenses, some lighting, some accessories. My partner in production, Abel Chaves, is the very same man who once sold me the small DVX100 Panasonic that I used on In Vanda's Room. It was 20 years ago and it used to be my preferred shop around the corner for everything. It was a great hangout place. It's still there! One day, I thought it would be a good idea—being a filmmaker in this digital age—to have some kind of control of our means of production. I proposed to Abel to become the producer. I knew that we shared some thoughts and convictions about how to make films and that we shared the same aversion towards the profession, its organization, the power games and its horrible products. Or just about small stuff like paying fees to shoot in public spaces...

NOTEBOOK: What about the opening scene at the airport, of Vitalina’s arrival?

COSTA: Ah, yes... we spent a long, long time begging for authorizations, trying to knock on every door, front and back doors, explaining and explaining again. We knew we could never afford the rates they practice. But we're stubborn. And I'll never resign myself: it's as if these places and scales are not allowed to a certain class of films, to modest productions. Let's not forget that cinema is one of the businesses that segregates the most. It's always a matter of scale, isn't it? The bigger, the better. We finally got permission to shoot a few hours, one night, on a plane parked next to a hangar. And to prove that we can play with wide and big and small and close, with scales, in this particular scene you can't say that the big airplane is more spectacular than Vitalina's small bare feet on the runway.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you’re in a comfortable position in terms of the funding you can get? Or is it always a struggle to get funding? Is what you’re given always then a struggle to execute?

COSTA: With me it doesn't get to be a struggle, I have no patience to fight those fights. And deep down in the cinema d'auteur pitch banks we all know how corrupt it became. Of course we need more money! My biggest regret is not being able to pay the people a little bit better. For the rest, for daily expenses, for sets, props, wardrobe, et cetera, et cetera, we'll do with whatever we pick up, waste, leftovers. The coup would be to get all of us, let's say, around 2,500 Euro per month. Which is minus zero zero in planet movie. The minimum wage in Portugal is 650 euros a month. Ventura's retirement pension is 250 Euros a month. But let's be clear, it’s not only about the money. I may be wrong, but even if I could pay a reasonable salary, almost no technician or professional actor would accept to work like we do. Almost no one wants to do one film, and one film only, for nine or twelve months, unless it’s Little Buddha, in Nepal, or some apocalypse in French Guiana, or with Sean Penn, with helicopters and stuff. Film crews want variety, they thrive on jumping on planes and boats, they long for the romance of film, for the adventure of the shooting. You know, cinema still generates a lot of this mystification. I've lost it a long time ago, I'm immune to the seduction and fascination that still makes 90% of young people to want to make films. Each day it’s more difficult to find a boy or a girl who’s vaccinated against this bullshit. I'm not saying they're not hard workers, they are very competent. But the confinement, the modesty of the machinery, six days a week? One year? In that awful place? No way! If there was a bit of thought about what a film crew is, nowadays, or the awareness of what it could be, I would even bear this silly romanticism. I've had very great and famous DPs coming to me after screenings of Vitalina or Vanda or Horse Money praising the photography, the light… "How do you guys do it?" And I always tell them the same: we just work for days and weeks and years, busting our brains and our eyes, digging and searching. Like if we had a secret formula. Like if we were alchemists. It’s absurd [laughs]. And even more today, working on digital: I assure you, it's ten times harder than working on celluloid. It's much more difficult to get to interesting results. I'm fed up with all these loaded heroes of the celluloid. 

NOTEBOOK: Was shooting the film’s two scenes in Cape Verde an extravagance?

COSTA: Not at all. It was necessary.

NOTEBOOK: Was it always a part of let’s call it the “scenario” or the “concept” to include scenes in Cape Verde?

COSTA: There was an idea for a scene in which Vitalina would go up on the roof and…

NOTEBOOK: …make this gesture looking into the distance with her hand to her head, like in a John Ford film?

COSTA: ...or Griffith, or Dovzhenko, or Buster Keaton, or Tati, or a few others. She would go up on a stormy night to try to stop the rain from falling inside the house. It was a very difficult shot to achieve because of the wind and the logistics of it all. So I told Vitalina to define herself her own actions: she would pick some bricks, cover the roof with plastic, install some wood beams, et cetera. It was a simple setting and furthermore it was something she was used to do on multiple windy and rainy days because that roof was really in a very bad shape. I thought we'd be in a documentary situation, so we would keep shooting and, in the end, we'd select the best moments from all the material. And then, from take to take I saw that she ended the shot with this gesture. I thought, "she’s seeing something." I never asked her why she did it or what was she seeing...

NOTEBOOK: You show Cape Verde twice in the film. The first time it comes, after showing Vitalina on her roof looking into the distance, it is such a shocking change of location and light that I thought it was the end of the film. I was startled when it returned again to the darkness. But then you do end the film in Cape Verde, with a young woman working on her house with a man.

COSTA: For a long time I thought the film would end with those "sad men" helping Vitalina to rebuilt the roof of her husband's house. But when we shot the wind in the roof, watching her watching something, somewhere, I imagined a girl on a roof in Cape Verde. I thought it could be a sort of counter-shot, with matching wind, of a young girl watching Vitalina from across the ocean. Like if there was a sort of call from afar and from the past. So I guess I also began feeling that we couldn't let Vitalina to remain closed in that house for ever. It would have been too complacent and stupid. As I told you, it feels like the whole film is a preparation, and the plane tickets were not that expensive. We went to Cape Verde and we stayed in Vitalina’s parents' house, we shot in the actual house that Vitalina and Joaquim were building, the boy working on the roof in the last shot is Vitalina's son, we slept in the house where Vitalina was born. You can't go much further back. 

NOTEBOOK: The time period you spend working and shooting sounds so intense to me that I imagine it requires a step away from production for peace of mind, peace of body, peace of soul. Even though I know you frequently speak of your method as work and you want to have the hours of daily labor, practicing cinema in this way seems more draining than filmmaking usually is.

COSTA: I have another work to do: to rebuild Vitalina’s house and roof. So now, we’re going back and we’re going to get a bunch of guys and we're going to do it. Something's unfinished...

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