Vitalina Varela is Pedro Costa’s seventh narrative feature in 30 years. Watching Costa, one has the impression of someone who has been away for a while reflecting at length upon his experiences, and who every few years dispatches a report about the things he’s seen. There’s an epochal sense at work: the hunch of arriving late, of getting older, and of taking stock once and for all. Costa uses the camera so that he can give each receding, pitch-black space an adequate form. I think there’s something tidy and considerate about this, in the same way that there’s something tidy and considerate about the administering of last rites, when all that remains of a person’s life is a bit of housekeeping. (If this can be said of cinema in general, I think it’s especially true here. Each Costa film is a proper burial.)
Maybe these are the marks of old age, or the privilege of a life that’s reached capacity. It’s a quality I find in Griffith, too. Like Griffith, Costa can be mournful, but also—perhaps incidentally—very, very alive. And young. In the grandest of grand comparisons, Vitalina Varela is True Heart Susie (1919).
Ricky D’Ambrose (Rail): Did the film begin with Vitalina, or were its origins primarily visual? Was there a founding image?
Pedro Costa: I’m happy, you’re the first person who’s gone there. You won’t believe this—image is a detail—but I’d say no, no. It’s a little bit of what you said, my relationship with Vitalina, if we consider something between two people a very complex net of confrontation, or something that goes from confrontation to harmony. Dialectics, let’s say. That’s the way everything starts, not only this film. It’s people, for me, it’s people. It’s even more than that: it’s a certain humanity. I’m not sure if I would be able to do a film with someone I didn’t like a little bit—not love, but like. There have been some actors whom I’ve had problems with. But to have a certain empathy, a certain connection, it’s not only helpful, but absolutely necessary for me. I feel like an imposter otherwise.
Rail: An imposter. Why’s that?
Costa: I don’t know. I think it’s too difficult to explain. Danièle Huillet used to say that the most difficult films—not the most difficult to shoot, but the most difficult to edit and finish—are the films without human beings. She was referring to two or three films she did. And I understand that. I understand that it’s about a certain time that brings a certain story, and a certain history, and a certain movement, which is not nature. And the movement of nature, the natural world, is not the same as someone on the screen talking or acting or interacting with someone else. I need to have a trace of humankind in my shots or I feel like an imposter. I also work a lot to not have empty shots, or what filmmakers used to call empty shots, or transitional shots… It’s not only that, but yeah, it’s also not making the same bullshit mistakes.
Rail: The film has been cleared out by the end. One of the last things we see is an image of raw materials: cinder blocks.
Costa: Yes and no, maybe. The sound at the end brings for me this world that is very close to this community—I mean a world without sounds and discussions and animals—and a sort of concentration of a lot of sounds in one small place. What you said makes me think that maybe the last shot relates to what this film is, or what every film is, which is an attempt to build something out of a certain memory of things that have passed. It’s a little bit metaphorical, but why not? The house connects to Vitalina’s past, yes, but it’s also a house that every girl, and sometimes every boy dreams of building. And it’s a refuge to the film itself.
Rail: A refuge…
Costa: It can be made, can be dreamed, can be worked. Everything can be worked. Like Vitalina says, if there’s love, it can work. It should work in a film. It’s too simple and too complex. It should work. I don’t think many films work nowadays. They are working in a sense, shot by shot, trying to go to the roof, so to speak. But it’s the same system, building bathrooms and rooms and a livable thing. They’re trying to meet expectations and feelings and emotions—and have something concrete. I’m not a believer, as I’ve been saying a lot. The only time I believe in something is when I’m shooting, making a film. So I’m lucky to do this every two or three years, because preparation is long. That’s a moment when I know true belief.
Rail: What do you believe in?
Costa: That we will get there. By the force of work—of heart and soul and sweat and sometimes blood—it will appear on the screen. And that this desire can be so strong, not only desire but the force of this concentration of will. Something will appear on the screen and something will be. For every film, every filmmaker in the world should have this, keep this incandescence in themselves, so it can meet with every actor, every collaborator. It’s not just the sharing of the project. It’s much more than that.
Rail: Did you take long to prepare?
Costa: Three years.
Rail: And what’s the preparation period like?
Costa: I tend to go very, very, underground. I listen, I see, I am what everybody else is. We don’t have assistants. I don’t have one, my DP doesn’t have one, the sound guy doesn’t have one. We are on our own. So we take the bus. The guy who has a car drives. Sometimes he doesn’t drive because it’s expensive. And I can only pay for a certain amount of gasoline. I listen to the sound of things, and that includes music. I do not live in the Yves Saint Laurent world. And some filmmakers, they do live in the Yves Saint Laurent world. And that doesn’t make a film very chic. It’s just a way of living. And I don’t live in Paris, I don’t live in New York…
Rail: The film ends with music.
Costa: That’s a piece I’ve been using for a long time, in every film. It’s a small fragment of a larger piece by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It’s a musical offering to someone who died a long time ago.
Rail: Do you spend much time with music? With other films?
Costa: Music has, for a long time, abandoned me. I don’t have that much time to be concentrated on music because we work a lot. I don’t like to have headphones. On the train, I like to be able to listen, to hear what other people say. I take the train very early and very late. It’s like I’m traveling with the working girls of the neighborhood, or with the men who go to build the buildings. I like to keep close to those discussions.
And film&elips; I confess, this last year, I don’t know why, but just to say to myself, “Shhh, calm down and relax,” I saw two or three films, to be conscious of the bullshit I’m doing. I watched a lot of [Mikio] Naruse, he blew me away completely. I saw some, I don’t know, ten years ago, just the ones we know. Then a friend in Japan sent me 40 or 50 subtitled Naruse films. And it probably left a trace in this film, because of the work he did with women and actresses and space.
Rail: You’ve spoken about Lubitsch having special relevance for you.
Costa: I think I was trying to do a remake of Cluny Brown (1946) with In Vanda’s Room (2000). Which is stupid. But suddenly I said, “This film exists. It’s called Cluny Brown.” It’s the same kind of girl. If Cluny Brown were alive today in certain parts of the world, she would be a kind of Vanda. Someone who’s building the world with her magnificence, and destroying herself at the same time. Because she is Cluny Brown. And that’s the beauty for me of Lubitsch, the contradictions. More than contradictions, the gravity. When it’s somber, it’s somber. When Cluny Brown is sad, she’s really sad. She’s not acting. Because it has to be like that. For me, it’s a little bit like Warhol. The gravity. How did this guy manage to have these women and men so seriously human…
Costa: Vulnerable. And true. The film that I love, Beauty No. 2 (1965). Warhol did in real time—because he shot and directed in real time—what I tried to do in three hours. It’s that famous story that Jacques Rivette used to tell, which should be a lesson or a guide that we filmmakers of today should have very present. He said something about Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), lots of things happen: they fall in love, get angry, fall in love again, the bus stops, people talk, people fight. A million feelings and emotions. The widest range of things. And it’s 85, 90 minutes. Rivette said that any serious filmmaker today—and he was talking over 20 years ago, but it’s even more true today—would have to spend five hours, six hours, to do the same film today. And it’s true. We lost the formula, the Lubitsch formula. It’s lost forever. We cannot find it. And now we’re stupid, complex. We don’t have spiritual guidance. We don’t have political strength. And films are more fragile. I’ve met some filmmakers in my life, and all of them were men and women of conviction. Huillet in a certain way, Godard in a very different way. I had a teacher, António Reis, who believed in stones, in nature. He was a pantheist. He was an animal. But I’m as fragile as the people I meet, and that meeting is very frightening. So that’s nice and comforting in a way, because I’m meeting the same kind of fragility, but it works, we can do it, and it takes time, a certain kind of economy. So I had to deal with that first. My films are not easy, and I don’t have much money, and they won’t give me more money.
Rail: Do you think you could make a film without performers?
Costa: I’m not saying no. Maybe. I would have to think. One of the movies that Huillet said was a nightmare to edit was Cézanne (1989). Where do I cut? There’s no movement. In that sense, there is no society. I need that. And Huillet and Straub need that. I need to know why she failed there. Even if it’s not present or very clear, I need to know what happened between all of the people in the film.
Rail: Your cutting style sometimes elides information completely. Do you consider this during the writing and shooting?
Costa: I arranged the shots myself. I had to. Because I knew I would be stuck in a certain place. I knew that the work would be huge, beyond me. And I knew I wouldn’t have much help. I took care of the planning of things because I also knew that if I didn’t work it out during the shooting, I wouldn’t survive in editing. That is to say, I cannot insert. 90 percent of filmmakers today could cut a shot and then follow it with an insert. So for me, it’s not that elastic, the editing. It really depends on the shots I have, it’s a wide and rich world, and I spend months editing. The most difficult thing for me in editing is choosing. It’s not like arranging, it’s not a Godardian thing, which is super interesting. But it’s choosing. In our work Vitalina, Ventura, or anybody else, they get to a point where every take is different. Different in variation, and in little details. There are tiny things, and we see them when the material is there, when the 20, 30, 40 takes are there. And that’s painful. That’s horrifying.
Rail: Painful to choose?
Costa: Yeah. Once upon a time, Straub included, a lot of filmmakers shot different versions of the same film. You know, first version, and the second version would be with the second takes.
Rail: Like The Death of Empedocles (1987).
Costa: Or The Golden Coach (1952). Lang did it with Metropolis (1927), too, I think. He knew he had three, four, five, perhaps ten good takes. I have to let go of a lot of things and that’s the hardest part of editing for me now. It was not like that in the beginning, but I came to this stage where 70 or 80 percent of the shots of the film belong to the actors, they exist because of Vitalina or Ventura. I don’t think I would choose something because there’s a nice light or…
Rail: For technical reasons. You want to honor whoever’s inside the frame.
Costa: Sure. This is also something which is common to every filmmaker, I think, which is, if it’s not good for the actor, it’s in the garbage immediately. Immediately to the garbage. The work now, it can change. We can move sequences from one place to another. It’s not radical. In the case of this film, it was a little bit blocked, and Vitalina has to go from here to there.
Rail: The shape was predetermined.
Costa: Yeah, she couldn’t go back. I didn’t shoot anything else. There’s nothing, there’s no sequence that is not in the film. And there are maybe 20 shots that I didn’t use. Just because I tried to be as tight as I could. Now I’m thinking a little bit more like Hitchcock or Straub. Let’s not waste time. Let’s not waste work.
Rail: Kind of a commitment to efficiency.
Costa: Well said.
Rail: What’s your earliest memory of the cinema?
Costa: It’s funny, because I was telling it to a friend yesterday. It was Tom Thumb (1958), a movie by George Pal.
Rail: I don’t know it.
Costa: It’s about a guy who is very small and lives inside a matchbox. It’s a children’s story, a fable. It’s this little Hollywood sort of musical for children, like Peter Pan or something, but not as famous, but the same kind. The actor in it is Russ Tamblyn. That’s the first film that I have any kind of memory of, and that I loved, really. I loved it. Because he was stuck in this matchbox and couldn’t get out, and then he fell from a chair to the ground, because he’s very tiny… [Laughs]