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Report | The cross of Vitalina

Why do you like saints so much, Vitalina?

“I like them because I’m alone and they keep me company.”

Sometimes, when he goes to the cemetery, he rescues a religious figurine that is lying around, brings it home and cleans it from the dirt.

On the saints’ table he also has a Christ carrying the cross. She looks at him with her beautiful eyes, almond-shaped and dark, and sentences.

“The weight of that cross has no end.”

Vitalina Varela says that her cross was her husband and that his death freed her; and he takes a dance turn and smiles in his poor house in Cova da Moura, a mostly Cape Verdean emigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Here her husband, Joaquim de Brito Varela, died in 2013, who forgot his family, got lost in the alleys, drank and drank, was in prison, and was so abandoned that no one was by his side when he left.

As children they were neighbors in Cape Verde. They became boyfriends when she was 17 and he was 20. Vitalina remembers that he was a well-established, brave young man who loved her. Joaquim emigrated from the former Portuguese colony to Lisbon. He promised that he would soon take her to Portugal. Decades passed and he never kept his promise. She would spend her life waiting for him to send her a plane ticket.

In 1980 they were married by proxy. Vitalina in Cape Verde and Joaquim in Lisbon. He sent her the wedding dress and she dressed it in a ceremony of which she keeps a photo in which she appears in white. Alone, young and sad.

Vitalina Varela in 1980 on the day of her lonely wedding in Cape Verde.

Many years later, Pedro Costa was one day in Cova da Moura, he saw the door of a house open and she appeared, “all in mourning and with that face of suffering. I think the film was born just at that moment, when we looked into each other’s eyes ”.

He saw a woman with a totemic countenance “who alone already deserved a movie.” She, to a man with a grave gaze and a gypsy physiognomy.

Vitalina Varela, a feature film about Vitalina’s own life in which she plays herself, it is Costa’s last work. In 2019 it won the award for best film at the festivals of Locarno and Gijón. As of October 16, it can be seen in theaters in Spain in its original version, distributed by the cooperative. Numax.

The select jury of Locarno distinguished as best actress Vitalina, a peasant girl who had not set foot in a cinema until she was 54 years old.

She received the award with the traditional Cape Verdean woman’s headscarf on her head and spoke Creole, the language of her land that mixes Portuguese with African elements. In the Swiss city she was cheered. They even asked for autographs. She really enjoyed visiting the Catholic sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso.

Pedro Costa is one year older than Vitalina. It is from 1959 and was born in Lisbon. His father and mother were journalists. They separated when he was two years old and he stayed with her, Albertina, until she passed away when he was only 13 and went to live with his father. In 1975 the Carnation Revolution took place and Luís Filipe Costa, his father, who died last summer, made history in his country when he read on the radio the first programmatic communiqué of the military that overthrew the dictatorship.

The boy grew up in full revolutionary effervescence. He and his friends had a punk band that was so radical that they did not give a name. “We all played, we all made fanzines and we all made Russian constructivist poetry,” he says on a terrace in Rossio Square with the compassionate irony of maturity. Behind Costa, a white-haired Frenchman drinks a gin and tonic, smokes a pipe and reads Le Canard Enchaîné.

At the end of the seventies he attended a film series in which he soaked up American classics like his revered John Ford – “the most experimental filmmaker of all time” -. He did the History career. Then he trained at the Film School.

Today Costa is one of the great names in auteur cinema with an uncompromising style: gloomy, slow, with great poetic force and very political for the mere fact of focusing his camera on people and places that nobody pays attention to. .

The film director Pedro Costa.

The film director Pedro Costa.

In 2000 he broke with the conventional schemes of the film industry with In Vanda’s room a three-hour fictionalized documentary whose protagonist is a young woman who smokes heroin in her room. He filmed it by himself with an affordable Panasonic DVX 100 digital camera by his side. From that work on, he opted to drastically reduce the cost of his productions in exchange for saving time to work patiently and meticulously.

Since then he has focused his work on the same working-class area of ​​Lisbon, and delved into that hybrid between documentary and theater in which the protagonists are the interpreters of their own lives. They are both the person and the character, which, after all, we are all always.

“Our shootings are obsessive, intense and poor,” says Costa, who for months integrates into the world of his characters, who continue with their lives with Pedro in the middle. In the book A golden blackbird, a bouquet of flowers, and a silver spoon, says about the filming of In Vanda’s room: “It was not very solemn. There were no helpers or silence and a thousand shots were cut because his mother came to say that the soup was ready.

The base team that Vitalina Varela made was made up of seven people. Filming lasted almost two years. Just in the 14-second sequence in which her feet are seen, barefoot and swollen, descending the ladder of the plane that brings her from Cape Verde, they used four whole days.

After Vanda, the director worked with a retired Cape Verdean bricklayer named Ventura, who starred in his films. Youth on the go (2006) and Horse Money (2014). In the latter, Vitalina already appeared, and Costa discovered in it the specific potential for his next project, Vitalina Varela: “The history of the Cape Verdean diaspora approached from the point of view of women.”

Stewing at home, she recounts that she was the sixth of a dozen legitimate children of her father. He does not know how many he had out of wedlock. At the age of seven he began to plow the field. Soon he also began to have to raise his younger siblings and take care of livestock. When she married Joaquim, she thought that she would live with him in Portugal or, even better, that maybe he would come back and start a family in Cape Verde and have cows, a donkey, goats, some chickens and grow beans and cassava and corn and all the things. over there.

Vitalina Varela in her garden on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Vitalina Varela in her garden on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Joaquim only returned twice from vacation. One in 1995 in which she became pregnant with her daughter Jéssica, and another in 1999 after which she had her second son, Bruno, whom Joaquim would not know because he never returned or wanted them with him in Portugal.

When her husband died, she traveled for the first time to Lisbon for his funeral. He was late due to visa problems. From that moment it has remained in his house as in a long catharsis. But today he no longer dresses in black, he has earned money with his salary from the movie, he is renovating the house and will wait for his children to come from Cape Verde to bequeath their inheritance to them and leave: “I want to return to my beloved land” .

Joaquim has been the only man she has been with and does not want to know anything about anyone else.

“Every man is treacherous, beginning with my father,” he says.

The beautiful Vitalina weaves calmly. “Good cinema,” reflects his friend and director Pedro Costa, “may be the best weapon of revenge.”