Hollywood hucksters, book hustlers, gallery exhibitionists, and grant applicants all sing the same lament about “seeing themselves represented.” And when indoctrinated young people join the chorus, having been taught that complaint is the beginning of self-assertion, you realize that none of them are aware how much multicultural representation already exists in popular culture. They surely can’t know the work of Portuguese art filmmaker Pedro Costa, whose new film, Vitalina Varela (his ninth in his usual style) once again meets every criterion of race, gender, underclass representation — and pushes them to the extreme.
Costa’s acclaim by film culture’s elite conflates his artistry with obsessive liberal sympathy: Vitalina Varela’s middle-aged African protagonist (a nonprofessional portraying herself) arrives in Lisbon after the death of her estranged husband, who emigrated years earlier. (A group of airport workers advise, “Here in Portugal there is nothing for you. Go back home.”)
Vitalina discovers her ex’s life in the dilapidated immigrant ghetto and begs a debauched immigrant priest, Ventura (another Costa alumni), to perform the funeral mass. But the opening shot itself already suggests a burial procession, anonymous blacks staggering through an empty street at night with cruciform objects towering overhead. Repeating themes of desolation, loneliness, regret, and immiseration from previous films, Costa expresses his sympathy in dirge-like fashion. This highly stylized film, as visually striking as the others, is representation by the Rembrandt of the ghetto.
In this era of diversity by segregation, Vitalina Varela takes the representation movement about as far as it ought to go — although the hustler-activists referred to above probably have no end in sight. Costa’s sophisticated approach outlines the limits of representation. There’s never a white face on screen; yet, given the deliberately constricted subject matter, a shot of dark brown hands pulling ruby-red beets out of brown earth constitutes an original vision. Costa is not influenced by prefabricated notions of racism like those in a Kara Walker art installation that manipulates pity, guilt, and sanctimony. Costa’s static group portraits — models striking powerful poses or standing in zombified friezes — painstakingly accomplish the direct expression of emotional experience that Julie Dash aimed for in Daughters of the Dust and missed. (Although today’s gatekeepers still pretend to themselves that Dash achieved art, simply because it suits their political condescension.)
But Costa’s art is astringent; his portraits of the black dispossessed betray no pathos. Through his abstraction — gray-black, blue-black, black-brown, brown-black monochromes — every image is a stunning, museum-quality composition. Cinematographer Leonardo Simões uses gobos to project light on specific spaces or faces. This transcends Dash’s romanticism, which is merely the art student’s failed pathos.
These high-art studies on black misery seem super decadent; they probably offer a special thrill for white liberal exoticists at film festivals. Costa has finally come into his own at a time when open-borders Europe welcomes exotic pathologies of the Other. His spectral figures wander desolate alleys at night as if symbolizing the European empire as a darkened haunted house.
This calls for a new conscientiousness among the Ava DuVernay set who exploit the “representation” craze through phrases such as “When They See Us” for no other reason than to secure career advantages. Hollywood race hustlers have not thought through the difference between how blacks are seen and how activist filmmakers choose to see them — the aesthetic quality of black figuration.
Meanwhile, Costa — who stares at race and almost sees past it — has commandeered the movement. Through the power of his imagery, he calls up the history of black representation: Grim-faced, liquid-eyed Vitalina is not pretty but handsome, like Juano Hernandez in Intruder in the Dust. A monologue about her husband’s infidelity and her own pregnancy (“One foot grew larger than the other”) blends Mary Tyrone with I Walked with a Zombie and then evokes Faulkner’s Lena in Light in August. When Vitalina enters her husband’s hovel and sits on the bed, her own reflection is revealed, framed by an engraved mirror on the other side of the room, a baroque double image. It’s something the famed Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava might have done had he used color film.
These characters — imagined by a white European who must only know blacks as impoverished, drug-addicted derelicts — lack the complex, politicized sense of social identity and Christianity as a moral, righteous, uplifting belief system that informs the experience of American descendants of slavery. The scene in which Vitalina takes a shower, running fingers through her thick lustrous hair, and plaster falls on her head recalls that in the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse when the African immigrant heroine is urinated on from a balcony — her ultimate humiliation in Belgium.
This European emphasis on degradation aligns with the most facile aspects of the representation movement. Vitalina Varela proves that even at Costa’s high level, representation itself isn’t enough.
Vitalina Varela streams at GrasshopperFilms.com.