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LFF Review: Vitalina Varela / A Hidden Life

Vitalina Varela in Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela
Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela

Life goes on, and on... and on, a burden imposed upon us by circumstance, encasing each of us in a bubble of our own concerns until the sting of death pierces through and puts an end to our misery, our suffering, but also our joy. As respectfully as I can make this sound, it's a joy to watch the misery and suffering expressed so richly, so profoundly in the films of Pedro Costa, one of cinema's foremost chroniclers of pain, and it's rarely been such a joy as it is here in Vitalina Varela. Like a composer revisiting and revising old themes, spinning new variations from their foundational fabric, once more Costa delineates the limitless well of personal and national torment in the native populace of Cape Verde and in their Portuguese diaspora, here expanding upon the character of Vitalina Varela first introduced in his last feature, 2014's Horse Money - here is Costa's central conceit, that, with Varela played by her namesake, exploring in greater depth an episode she described in Horse Money, a title that is otherwise narratively unrelated, an eternal and boundless plain of torment can be suggested within the clearly defined boundaries of a movie, or of a series of movies. That national torment cannot itself be defined, as Costa suggests it cannot be confined to a single artistic expression, nor to the strictures of continuity; that personal torment too cannot be defined, so deep is its rot, so black is its darkness.

For all his stylistic rigour, and the seemingly unyielding quality of his stark, cloistered compositions, Costa is as generous a filmmaker as he is intelligent. Vitalina Varela introduces new aesthetic, societal, political and/or philosophical discussions in each new scene, each new perfectly formed work of artistic excellence. He dredges history up out of the soil to be examined in the present, and looks to the future with a surprising, gratifying optimism, even amid what might appear to be interminable despair. That, alongside his most wondrous mise-en-scene, makes Vitalina Varela a less punishing experience of endurance than it might have been were it made of slightly purer stuff, though rather than negating the purity of Costa's depictions of that despair, these touches accentuate its integrity. He and Varela alike speak into the darkness - if she receives no reply, he receives the inspiration to create from that darkness a work of sublime artistry and intellect.

August Diehl in Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life
August Diehl in A Hidden Life

Speaking of endurance, how about a 173-minute Terrence Malick movie about a Christian conscientious objector in rural Austria? Many will experience similar objections to A Hidden Life merely from such a description, and many will experience them further upon actually watching it, but my own experience was not one of endurance but of the kind of rapturous admiration I've almost always received from Malick's works. Working in a dusty palette of teals and browns, more muted than his recent, gleaming collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki (the cinematographer here is Jorg Widmer), Malick applies his stylistic signatures to a resolutely linear narrative, centring his concerns solely on his protagonists and their relationships with each other and with their god. That which has merely been suggested in prior Malick movies is here laid bare in the light of the Golden Hour: he sees god in nature and in the natural compassion of the human heart, and A Hidden Life might very well be the most Christian art movie of all time.

If that turns you completely off A Hidden Life as it might have done me, allow the majesty, itself close to divinity, of Malick's technique to turn you back on. He's unrelentingly earnest, almost to a fault (dogged, didactic honesty in dialogue never sounds quite right when it's delivered in an actor's second language), but thus reaches for a level of wondrousness that few others dare to, and indeed his reach is uncommonly true. One path leads to another, and to another, until all of life is rendered a path toward the ignominy of death; make the brave choice to tread those paths in good faith and you may be rewarded. Honest labour and the land reward too, and a faithful interaction with the elements affords one a life that rewards itself. Even in its bleakest moments (and they do get utterly wretchedly bleak), A Hidden Life holds its head up high, high enough to see the beauty of this planet, the goodness in the human soul, and maybe even just a little bit of god themselves. Maybe just their pinky toe. And in a Malick movie, you can bet your divine little butt it's a beautiful pinky toe indeed.

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