Locarno 2019. Vital Transmissions

Three of the festival's best premieres—"Endless Night," "The Tree House," and Pedro Costa's "Vitalina Varela"—boldly revive the past.
Daniel Kasman
Vitalina Varela
Vitalina Varela
By its nature, the cinema has the power to make the past the perpetual present: living before us forever is what once was. This is true as much for Cary Grant’s sly grin as it is for the rubble-strewn Berlin of Germany, Year Zero, equally embalmed for later re-animation. Among the most powerful films premiered at the Locarno Film Festival this year were those that made this extraordinary yet intrinsic facet of the art the focus of their resonance, the thrust of their representational politics, and the boldness of their forms.
Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night pointedly blurs the line between past and present to evoke the continuity between today’s Spain—economically unstable, politically uneasy, historically blinkered—and Galicia of the Franco dictatorship following the Civil War. In the first of three chapters, we see scenes of dialogs between various people encountered in Galicia as an anonymous young man returns to his region: two beggars on the steps of church, the town’s prospective mayor and his assistant, a businessman preparing to emigrate to America, an old widow waiting for the return of her son after the war, and middle-aged townsmen playing cards at a bar. These people are presented simply and directly, their conversations about changing times, money, the glory of Franco, and the senselessness of the war feel at once contemporary and historical. Following the films of Straub-Huillet and Pedro Costa, Enciso is using non-professional actors reciting pre-existing texts in order to re-interpret the ideologies, class and economic disparity, anger, and trauma of older times into a new work of today. The costumes and mise-en-scène could be from now or any time in the 20th century, as Enciso pointedly hangs his film in a nebulous region whose somber shadows stretch across the decades, suggesting the legacy of Franco’s era, of its violence and repression, and of its rationalization and valorization, is hardly over and done with or indeed separate from contemporary neoliberal Spain. No: One lives within the other, the repercussions of the past echo and sound in the present.
The second and third chapters of the film sees the man leave town and continue his journey as the sun sets and his unstated mission becomes more clandestine. Is he headed home, joining a resistance, or simply, evocatively, burrowing backward—or, indeed, forward—in time? The second chapter is centered on a long monologue by a woman telling of her imprisonment and her encounter with another woman condemned to death, and the experience of release. The final chapter fully plunges into the dark forest, the man wandering, partly lost, partly questing, deeper into the wilds, while we hear on the soundtrack a long recitation of a letter in fact collaged from many letters written by those in jail to their loved ones at home. Memories, letters, writings brought back to life, visualized as a space between Galicia today and that of a more horrible time. Bravely, the film holds itself between then and now.
Vietnamese director Truong Minh Quý’s second feature, The Tree House, also places itself at a remove in order to have a better vantage on the present. Its story is told by a Mars colonist of the future. He looks back upon Earth, which to him is Vietnam, which to him is made of the memories of the country's recently increasingly assimilated indigenous peoples. This extraneous framing story aside, what follows is something just as brave as revealing the tremors of Galician history: a portrait of barely known peoples who up until only very recently lived in near total isolation in the jungles and mountains of central Vietnam, and are now being rapidly integrated into society and losing their original cultures. A collage between diary film, ethnography, and experimental portrait, Truong mixes 16mm shooting of forest hills, old habitations in caves, and ethnic mausoleums, with archive footage and interviews with adults remembering their upbringing outside modern society in order to create an evocative but purposefully inconclusive essay on a precarious indigenous existence. Narrated with a touching sensibility, frequently personal, often forlorn, and sometimes humorous, by this distant spaceman who explains much but also doubts the incursion of his camera and the ethics of his practice, we are introduced to details and echoes of older, marginalized, and isolated traditions and cultures already in the process of being sanded down, losing their original ways of living, their languages, and possibly their memories. The Tree House isn’t aiming to preserve these things, but rather to reveal fragments of what remains and pay homage to their fragile present. While the film’s shape is a bit of a hodgepodge, it admits to the open-ended nature of its project and the sense that a great deal of this human culture and experience is already beyond the reach of the cinema.
The centerpiece of Locarno this year was by the rare “name” in the international competition, Pedro Costa, whose influence was so strongly felt in Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night. Vitalina Varela is far and away the best new film at the festival, taking the most risk, running the most difficult course of existence, devoted with every ounce of its being to the compassionate transmission of another’s experience. 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 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 boldly 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 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 past 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 light 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, 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, played Ventura, Costa’s regular actor, collaborator, muse and inspiration, who, unusually, is not playing a version of his own life but rather that of another, 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 is too great. The film resolves no narrative dilemma, but rather is devoted to an anguished documentary expressionism 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 granting this lone woman a much needed benediction.

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Festival CoverageLocarnoLocarno 2019Eloy EncisoTruong Minh QuýPedro Costa
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