Five years ago, Pedro Costa brought Horse Money to the Locarno Film Festival and won the award for best director. Like Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), Horse Money is set in what was once Fontainhas, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon that critic and programmer Cyril Neyrat has called “a mix of casbah and shantytown.” At one point, Ventura, a Costa regular who by 2014 was getting on in years, falls into a late night conversation with a fellow Cape Verdean immigrant, Vitalina, who tells him that she has arrived in Portugal three days too late to attend the funeral of the husband who abandoned her years ago. Her story is told in full in Costa’s first feature since Horse Money, a film that bears her name, Vitalina Varela. As Locarno wrapped over the weekend, she was awarded best actress and the film took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard. Reporting for Variety, Jay Weissberg notes that jury president Catherine Breillat “was emphatic in saying that Costa’s achievement goes beyond mere awards, insisting on its place in the cinema pantheon.”
In a moving interview conducted by the festival, Varela expresses her boundless gratitude to Costa not only for giving her the opportunity to relate her heartrending story but also for his support at a time when she was in dire need of medical attention. “You need help when you don’t have papers,” she says. “A person without documents, without work, is a sad person.” Costa’s film is “devoted with every ounce of its being to the compassionate transmission of another’s experience,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. While Kasman finds that it “doesn’t have the imaginative range” of Horse Money “and feels somewhat uneven in its editing despite its compellingly singular subject, Vitalina Varela is nevertheless a film of fierce determination and paramount resonance.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young argues that one of the film’s strongest assets is the cinematography by Leonardo Simoes, who has been working with Costa since Colossal Youth. “Simoes conjures chiaroscuro wonder after chiaroscuro wonder,” writes Young, and his “achievement here is arguably worthy of comparison with all-time greats such as John Alton and Gabriel Figueroa. He seems incapable of creating an ordinary or forgettable image as he manipulates shadows, walls, doorways, and faces, his dazzling flair with depth-of-field yielding near-3D effects at times.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has called Costa “the Samuel Beckett of world cinema,” and French philosopher Jacques Rancière has noted Costa’s own acknowledgement of his debt to Raoul Walsh and Jacques Tourneur. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor finds “as much of recent Kaurismäki going on here–not in terms of humor, of course, but in the strange and deeply felt way they combine heightened, romantic cinematic techniques with vitally current material. Costa’s style is at once aesthetically unique and thematically contemporary while also–despite his use of digital imagery–clearly the work of a great cinematic classicist.”
Vitalina Varela, also reviewed by Sophie Monks Kaufman (Little White Lies), Eric Kohn (IndieWire), and Christopher Small (Sight & Sound), is the first film discussed on the Film Comment Podcast recorded in Locarno. The film now heads to festivals in Toronto and New York, and Grasshopper Film will give it a theatrical release in the U.S. early next year.
More Locarno Awards
Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, which centers on a police officer dispatched to an island with her daughter following her divorce, has won a special jury prize, while the award for best director goes to Damien Manivel for Isadora’s Children. A dancer himself, Manivel has four women engage with Mother, a solo piece created by Isadora Duncan following the death of her two children. “Isadora’s Children is both a tribute to a free and atypical woman who revolutionized the history of dance, and an attempt to recreate, through images, the sensation of loss and emptiness which Duncan’s touching choreography exudes,” writes Giorgia Del Don at Cineuropa.
Regis Myrupu has won the best actor award for his performance in Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever as a security guard in the Brazilian city of Manaus. As noted last week, early reviews have been strong for The Fever, which now heads to Toronto, as well as for Maura Delpero’s Maternal, which has been honored with a special mention. A second special mention goes to Yosep Anggi Noen’s The Science of Fictions, in which an Indonesian farmer stumbles upon a film crew faking footage of a moon landing. To keep him quiet, the crew cuts off his tongue, and thereafter, he bears witness by wandering through life in slow motion—like an astronaut in space. At Cineuropa, Marta Bałaga finds that the film “can’t quite match its ambitions.”