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Pedro Costa Interview (Vitalina Varela)

Pedro Costa is a Portuguese filmmaker whose latest feature film, Vitalina Verala (2019), reunites the director with actors from his previous feature, Horse Money (2014): Vitalina and Ventura. Exploring the Lisbon neighbourhood of Fontaínhas, a project Costa began with Ossos (1997) and symbolically continues after its physical destruction in Colossal Youth (2006), the filmmaker intimately collaborates with his actors on stories derived from their lives within this community and the connections with Cape Verde that set this project in motion. In this film, Vitalina arrives to the neighbourhood to confront her husband’s death, while Ventura plays a preacher in crisis, both reckoning with their relationship to the space, its people, and the past that continues to haunt its shadows. The film had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where we had the tremendous fortune to speak with Pedro about the making of the film.

The Seventh Art: How quickly did you start this project after Horse Money?

Pedro Costa: I tried to get some money from the Portuguese Cinema Institute one or two months after we finished Horse Money, because it was evident that it would be Vitalina in the next film. So I managed to write something very quickly, which was completely fake, not at all this film.

You have to give [the funders] something…

Right, you try to have some elements that are true: the arrival, the husband, the house, but Ventura did not exist [in the film] at that point. I started alone with Vitalina, recording a little bit of stories and memories, and that went on for a couple of months. Then we got the funding and I think we started in 2016 more or less, a crew of three. Later it became a crew of four, but we started, as always, testing the camera, shooting, trying things, preparing, locations, everything at the same time. Then we got to a point where I had a something more or less a centre of the film: Vitalina and this mourning, the candles, the altar, the situation. So we decided to start inside the house, that’s what we shot first. Our base was the house and then we went outside to do some exteriors, then we came back.

A lot of things were added and invented during the shoot, especially Ventura, and all that has to do with the church. That comes from a story that Vitalina told me, but it was quite different. I imagined that Ventura could play a priest who had to find a church, the dialogue, the way they met.

I read that Ventura also knew the real priest, is that true?

It’s become a legend, everybody more or less knows this story. It was a very young priest who lost his mind, thinking he was guilty of killing a bunch of guys in a van just because he needed some papers, he was very strict in performing his baptism rituals. So he told them, “No, no, no,” and they went to another town and another priest, and they were killed. So he lost his mind, he disappeared, he was [defrocked] by the Bishop, and came to Portugal. Then everyone lost his trace and a lot of legends and myths, some claim that he’s completely crazy and into drugs, one of the drug guys in the neighbourhood said that he was dead. Ventura knew him, yeah. That helped a lot, as well as the fact that Ventura hates priests. He’s very sarcastic and cynical toward the church. He goes with his wife to Fatima, sometimes they go there in the van all thirty of them singing. Every time he comes, he comes with a smile, saying that everybody sang. That helped.

What was Vitalina‘s relationship to the story [Vitalina] told, how much of what she told you ended up in the film?

I can’t really remember, there were a lot of details. She insisted a lot on this situation of being closed in the house, not able to go out because she thought everybody suspected her or didn’t like her. She hated the neighbourhood completely. The feeling was reclusive, she was a prisoner of this house for months and months, until we met. She was inside, it was very dark, she was afraid of coming out, she went out at night – that was very useful. She had no help from anyone, she never went to the cemetery to visit the grave: a lot of pearls to make this necklace of moments, days or weeks. I took some notes and decided that it was better to condense and concentrate all of this in weeks, not a year, but weeks and days. She would arrive, she would do this ceremonial altar, men would come (colleagues of her husband) and then she would begin to explore and find the priest, etc. It’s very concentrated. The big work was more the words, the text, the dialogue, monologue. That was hard because she had no experience – she had the experience of Horse Money but… Now I like to work going from 30 pages to 3 pages, reducing while shooting, that was very hard work for her. Ventura was easier. This text is more a code, it has the Biblical references, Ventura’s sayings (he’s invented a lot of expressions)… “I hear a man crying all the time”, “There’s no lock on the door,” things like this he gives us permanently, I don’t know where he gets them. I don’t want to know.

He’s become very professional as an actor?

Not professional, but… yeah, well for us, when he’s there and we have a scene, we know… it can be hard because it was a very difficult last year for him. He had two strokes, he’s not young, the shaking and the memory are worse, but we knew when it’s a good day, he will always be interesting to watch. He’s a very rich and interesting actor. Vitalina, too, but Vitalina was much more… Ventura, everyone saw him perform, but Vitalina it was much more in secret. Mainly because we shot in the house, which is very small. It looks bigger because I shot with a 15mm lens, which is quite wide, otherwise we couldn’t have shot there, it’s so, so small. Every time we shot with her, I preferred to be alone: me, her, the camera and [the crew] were a bit outside in the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom. It was much more secret than Ventura or the other two actors, it was the hardest thing in this film. Well, everything is difficult. To shoot at night is very hard, even in the house we tried to shoot at night because of the sound. It’s very noisy in the neighbourhood, so after 10 or 11 p.m. everything becomes a bit quiet.

You said there were sometimes 20 to 30 takes, was that to get the right language?

Yeah, a little bit of everything, too. First, to get to the text, the final text. Second, to see Vitalina’s affection for this text particularly, what kind of emotion or range, and that was very unexpected. Sometimes I thought that this would be very painful for her and she approached it with a tough attitude, and sometimes the contrary: I expected she would be tougher and she would collapse or break. I pushed her to be very tough on some things and she was great. She overcame a lot of anxiety and fear. That’s why we needed so many takes. [Robert] De Niro would need or demand the same. Vitalina sometimes wanted to do much more, “Just to see,” as she says.

What she is going through as a character, she’s discovering through the performance, so it must be difficult to get to that.

It’s the old thing that I felt with In Vanda’s Room (2000), which has a lot of connections to this one, of course. It’s a very feminine thing, I was completely in jail with a woman for two years [laughs], and hearing this litany, this prayer almost. With Vanda, I felt the same, that she was not only trying to understand what is this camera, what is this film, how do they make this, [thinking] “I’m talking about something and later I’ll be running after someone, I’ll have to roll my eyes, what is this strange game.” She was thinking about that while talking about very intimate, painful things (of her choice). It’s a very good feeling, actually, where at the exact same time you’re searching for stuff. I’m not passively watching the shot be composed, framed in a certain light. Everything changes because she is changing for a word or an emotion. That gives you a certain dynamic, the fact that usually – more Vanda than Vitalina – this situation or people I work with, they tend to do a lot of variations. They’re not locked, their posture or their intonation, they change a lot and drastically. They say something very fast, then in the second take do it completely tired. It’s also very scary, because everything is unknown, even what she is going to say. They have not given me the text, the daily sheet [laughs], that’s what I was saying yesterday in the Q&A: I need some time to resist the first impression, the first idea. When she says, “I see all these drunken, sad men,” you’re not expecting that, because we begin with “Okay Vitalina, let’s work this week around what you felt about all these men, these bricklayers, what was your memory, does it still connect to today, are you still feeling the same, were they kind to you, were they savages?” That’s how it begins and then her first three sentences are always very shocking, so I need time to think about what she’s saying, a lot of time. So I need takes, the second take I will probably organize or cut or re-frame something, because it’s not interesting or it’s too much or because it’s not the right direction we need to go, etc. This work of concentration and all the time trying to find a centre, it takes me a lot of time.

Does that mean the last take is usually the one you go with?

No, but in general and with few exceptions – and that’s another point where Vitalina and Vanda are connected – don’t be shocked, it’s the last 30 that are the bunch. In this kind of scene, it could be ones without dialogue, but ones where their presence is more there, it would be 50 takes average. With Ventura it’s the same, it doesn’t mean he’s not functioning… When he’s not functioning, it just means he’s not capable. When he’s shooting the scenes in the church, for example, we need 50 at least just to get there. I’m doing this a little bit less now because of this fucking digital thing is becoming more and more expensive all the time, inventing this super case and memory cards are very expensive, so we have to control a bit because there’s always transferring to a disk, then you have to do a copy, so it’s becoming a bit of a nightmare, but I’m still with the Chaplin method: rehearsal on film. I’m always shooting, not because I’m trying to catch something, some gleam, some expression, something… No. When you see the film, that’s not how it works, but because I think they need the camera rolling, like Chaplin needed it. Not to watch ourselves, we can watch ourselves, which [Vitalina] did sometimes, but everything changes when the camera rolls. There’s a weight, a gravity that is there – a presence – that helps them a lot. There’s a third one in the room suddenly. It’s the ritual, I think. I need it, the confinement, the quietness, the silence of a take. They need it because it makes them understand this is a precious moment. With them it’s easier, too, I think, they wouldn’t need it because it’s themselves. They’re taking so much out of themselves, so who am I to say this is a very sacred moment, but then it’s cinema, so it’s a certain ceremony, I think it’s useful still.

When we talked about Horse Money, you said work is very important to Ventura. Is it the same with Vitalina?

Yeah, I remember when I met Vitalina, I didn’t understand it right away, but she was working a little bit as a cleaning lady: two, three hours a day. One day I understood because I was going home and she said, “I’m going with you,” and I understood she was cleaning the house of an old lady, I think. I said, “Vitalina, no, if we do this film together, maybe you should stop working, because we never know when we shoot. I don’t have a schedule, I prefer that we’re always together, even if Ventura doesn’t shoot, you’re always with us. It’s very nice, it’s very useful, this presence is very comfortable.” So she said, “Okay, but I have to work,” and it was not the money because it’s a film and [she’ll] get paid, which isn’t always clear. With Vanda, it was something else because she didn’t work, but the symmetry [between them] was: “So when do we start the film?” I had to keep repeating, “We did, it’s already going, I’m here and the camera is here.” With Vitalina, she kept saying, “Okay, we’ll do the film, but I have to work.” Then I understood that she has to work because she has to keep busy or she wanted to get out of the nightmare of the night and this house. I said to not go to the awful jobs, the cleaning, and she understood the film is work, it’s hard work, but she had to have something on the side. Then she found, quite early, a piece of land to work on with vegetables. All of the Cape Verdeans had a little bit of land, the hills on the highways around Lisbon, to plant beans or potatoes for themselves. Just the fact of working on this piece of land and going there every day or sometimes, it was a sacred moment for her. She would say, “It’s the only moment I forget everything, barefoot and working my beans, I’m happy.” We did the film and she worked this piece of land and it changed, because sometimes everything is not legal so some guys from the town hall came, and so that came into the film in a different way. The fact that they work at night or undercover on some hills around the houses and neighbourhood, that came in because she insisted on keeping her farming.

Vitalina working is the image you choose to end on, how did you finally decide that?

That’s Vitalina’s daughter and son. You’re the first one to know, I don’t think anyone else knows.

It must be hard to determine where to end a film like this.

Yeah, that was a very… not difficult, but a feeling of what does the film need. As always, that’s the problem or the question: What does this film want? What does this film need? Where does it go? But this film is completely Vitalina for me, so what does she need and what does she deserve? Does she deserve to be inside forever? If you took out the last shot, she would be inside forever and that would please a lot of people. I planned it, because that shot in Cape Verde is her house. Everything is real, that’s the house she talks about that they were working on and was incomplete. It stands there for twenty years or more. I planned to go there, just to do two or three shots without her. I didn’t know if I was going to use [the shots], but I had them… like stock footage… in our computer. It was just three or four shots, really, we did four days and we did the shots that are in the film plus one, which is just a variation of her coming out of the house and standing in the wind. It’s just another point of view, let’s say, a camera position. It’s time that decides: editing, I left [this scene] out. Quite simply, it was the last shot. I had the film completely edited and then I waited for the moment and then… I put it in.

I like the sense of space in the film, it reminded me a bit of Ossos where the electrical poles in Fontaínhas were so prominent and Ventura touches one again here. For someone who hasn’t been to the place, they act as spatial markers. How do you go about creating a sense of this space for a viewer?

I was always guided by this memory of the first time I entered Fontaínhas. I always remembered it was much more sounds and temperature – a feeling of warmth, or bodies even, because the alleys were so narrow and dark. Night and day it was the same, this proximity or feeling that you can be so close to someone that you don’t see, just the breath or the shouting… extremes. That was my memory.

We were shooting and had this centre, Vitalina’s house, and we had the church that we would go to and shoot this and that. The rest of the neighbourhood we made like a mosaic. Sometimes just to breathe a little bit or for me to think about something else, we would go spend a week doing shots of Ventura or the alleys. As I remember Ventura when I first met him, he was a guy who guided me through the neighbourhood. He didn’t, but in a way he did, he was a kind of guide – a silhouette or shadow crossing an alley, disappearing around the corner. Being this, as he was, very strange man, he used to pray, cry, sing to himself all the time. So I wanted to remember that and I thought it would be a good way in this film – a film with a lot of prayers – while Vitalina is remembering the rain, the outside. I thought it would be nice to have this confusion between the houses, the interior spaces, everything mixed, never inside, never outside, you’re always inside/outside. The door is always open, from the moment she opens the door, everything comes in, there are no secrets.

The poles, it’s not the exact [same] poles, but it comes from an ancient memory I’ve told of my first week in Fontaínhas. I was walking in the alley with someone and this guy told me, “Watch out, you might fall.” I then figured out that no stepped on three or four cement tiles and it was not about falling, it was “Don’t step on that because it’s like sacred ground.” I realized that everybody makes a detour. There’s a saying, “It’s much more expensive to send a coffin to Cape Verde than a regular ticket.” Two or three guys were buried in Fontaínhas ground. It probably comes from that, one of the poles has a cross so there’s that confusion, that electrical poles are crosses or could be. It’s this mixed with something that’s in Colossal Youth, something I heard a lot and especially from one guy, that they’re landmarks. A lot of guys got crippled and died getting lights for the houses.

Is that Ventura that touches the pole with the purple marker at the beginning?

Yes, it’s supposed to be Ventura, but this idea of a hand touching a pole as you would touch something meaningful, like a grave or statue in a church, that’s what they have in that neighbourhood. The pole is what you must climb to get electricity, but also where you could fall and die. The pole is somewhere you can inscribe traces of disappearance, crosses, death. And the pole marks an itinerary, you can follow the poles to get out of the neighbourhood or get in. It’s a lot of things. It’s the poles where Ventura and his fellow pioneers, in Colossal Youth they’re there a little bit where they needed the poles to get home when they were so drunk or so tired. They’re totemic, let’s say, for me and a little bit for them. If you film a pole with Ventura’s hand, it will become totemic.

I found by the end of the film, it’s a hopeful film and I feel that’s rooted in Vitalina.

I’ve been hearing a lot of this. What can I say?

You described Ventura as more cynical…

I’m not sure if cynical is the right word, but… Cynical toward church. Not God, but church – Catholic church, our church, he knows it’s not perfect. Then he has his ways of praying.

When you said Vitalina took care of the production, maybe that’s where it comes from. She talks about the lazy men and there’s a sense of wanting to push things forward.

That was the reality of her life before the film, I think she was in a much darker situation. She abandoned herself, she was much more desperate then in the film, that’s what she told me. She couldn’t get out of bed, do anything, so her insistence that these men are “guilty” (to simplify it) was very dominant. So let’s get revenge, payback [laughs] and she agreed: let’s tell them how it is. The proposal of making this little altar, the funerary altar and two, three, four days of mourning with the men coming in, that was her and my idea. She didn’t [actually] do that, but that’s what she was supposed to do or any woman or family does still. It’s a bit more careless than it was before in the old days, now it has become someone dies, church, maybe two hours in the house sharing some food or cake, then it’s over. It used to be days and days, at least three days of prayers and mourning and everyone sitting around paying homage. I said, let’s do it now. That moment seemed very delayed, but very real because she composed the altar – the candles and the photographs, the crucifix with the handkerchief. That was a certain preparation, the film helped her do something she had not forgotten, but resisted. The idea that the men should come in and be there came because she wanted to get something from them. Still today, she has the same mood: it’s their fault, always. The guy who plays the husband’s colleague, he’s a very tough guy. We were lucky to have him, because he resisted being in the film a lot, because he’s exactly what I saw, what I felt, what Vitalina needed to confront. He was completely under her spell, let’s say, super afraid of her – still is. He’s very arrogant, macho, but we could feel it, he was extremely nervous in the sense that something there is touching a very difficult point inside of him. A little bit ashamed, let’s say. Every time he passes Vitalina, he knows he left something of his soul there or the truth of that neighbourhood, that story, the classic story of a man abandoning a woman, especially those who are unfortunate to be immigrants, the ones who stop writing, stop calling, who have two wives and ten kids, etc.

Did anything happen during this film that has made you think of your next project, the way that Vitalina in Horse Money inspired this one? Not yet, no. I want to think about that, but at the same time I know that it’s so, so dangerous all the time for me. Dangerous in the sense that there’s nothing, really, and there will be nothing almost until the last second editing. Not editing, but shooting I’m certain. I have to survive, live with this possibility or condition. I found it, I chose it, I live with it, so it’s my cross I have to bear [laughs].

I’m always referring to the letters [Ed: Pedro brought letters from Cape Verdeans to their friends and family members living in Fontaínhas]. The fact that I don’t know the contents of the letters I brought from Cape Verde is sort of the origin of each film. Then normally, I am lucky to have someone cross paths with someone and I see this person. This person wants to read the letter and I see the face, I see the words forming in their mouth, the origin is completely unknown to me. It’s a tragedy, the origin of the tragedy is mysterious to me.

This film and Colossal Youth both have portions of the story that go back in time to try to find some kind of beginning.

Yeah, I’m a little bit torn between that, I’ve been thinking about that. I’m trying to be a bit more in the present, though. I need time, a little bit.

The sound in this film was very striking. It’s a small crew, what’s your relationship with your sound designer?

The sound designer actually recorded some stuff because the boy who was with us for all the film had to leave. It was great, because the sound designer came to do three or four scenes, final scenes, and he recorded. He got to see the place, recorded some ambient sounds in the neighbourhood, and then he worked alone for months and months. I was there for him because I like to work with sound and we had tons of recorded sound from the neighbourhood and from the past, the other films. So in this film you hear Vanda coughing, sounds from Colossal Youth, sounds from Ossos. He’s a very good sound designer and editor, I am very lucky to find people who are not afraid of working in very long periods. I cannot pay fortunes, but they are interested. More than myself – they know me and I’ve worked with them three or four times, so there’s a sort of trust, faith and egalité – but again what made the film special was Vitalina. She completely conquered, they liked working on the sound of a film with Vitalina [laughs], editing her words, her breath.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, and his written work includes numerous video essays, investigating formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.