If the eyes are the windows to the soul, Vitalina Varela’s are a skylight. Whole texts could be written on the history of heartache visible in her steady gaze. Varela—star of the haunting, somnambulistic movie that bears her name—spends long stretches of the runtime staring into the middle distance, all but her face partially or completely shrouded in shadow. Was it da Vinci who first made that observation about eyes and the soul? He was born several centuries too early to witness, in this actor’s stony but revealing countenance, such a perfect illustration of the idea. Varela’s is an immortal face, a canvas of emotion fit for framing. Which is maybe why Pedro Costa, the revered Portuguese director of Vitalina Varela, captures her in shots that look like paintings from an Old Master. You could fill a museum with her image.
Varela, who’s from the island country of Cape Verde, had a small role in Costa’s previous movie, Horse Money. Here she’s the whole show. Vitalina Varela, which she co-wrote (though a traditional screenplay was not used), is said to be inspired by her life. Her character, also named Vitalina Varela, flies to Lisbon to reunite with her dying husband, who abandoned her decades earlier. Upon arrival, she discovers that she’s too late—the man who loved and left her long ago is now dead and buried. Over the days that follow, she’ll sift through the rubble of his life, and maybe build a new one for herself on top of it. This being a Pedro Costa movie, that’s about all there is to the plot. But in silence and monologue, and in the darkness of a dilapidated house, Varela floods the film with feeling—a bottomless grief mingling with love, rage, resentment, regret.
There are lots of very obvious reasons why this staggering performance, which won the Best Actress prize at Locarno in 2019, hasn’t a chance in hell of being cited by the Academy in a few weeks. While it’s not unheard of for someone speaking a language other than English to score an acting nomination—or even to occasionally win—those who manage to overcome a national aversion to subtitles tend to be white movie stars from Italy or Spain or France. Varela, a nonprofessional actor from Africa with two credits to her name, has no ties to the machine of rising and falling careers that we call The Industry. That likely makes her invisible to the Hollywood players filling out a ballot this year. Not that too many of them, anyway, would likely make it all the way through a movie by Costa, the walking definition of an art-house acquired taste.
Even setting all that aside, Varela’s quietly powerful turn is out of step with current trends in what the Academy (and maybe American movie culture in general) tends to value in screen performance. Vitalina Varela fits into a tradition of stoic presentational acting by non-actors. Costa is no neorealist—though he focuses on the lives of Portugal’s most marginalized, it’s sometimes through a half-fantastical lens, turning modern Lisbon into a figurative and even literal ghost town. But his preferred style of performance (practiced by his regular muse, mononymous actor Ventura, who also appears in Vitalina Varela) still recalls the ethos of the Italian neorealists, as well as glamour-allergic masters like Robert Bresson and the Dardenne brothers. A certain authenticity is the goal, with the idea being that you cast a non-performer for their natural, unaffected quality more than their chops. What they bring is themselves.
To say that this is anathema to what an awards body like the Academy generally honors would be an understatement. What do the Method extremes of Daniel Day-Lewis and the various precise accents of Meryl Streep have in common? Both are symptoms of a belief that the best acting is a matter of transformation. The truly great, as the argument goes, turn themselves into someone else. It’s also where the obsession with agonizing labor comes from—you’re not a real frontiersman unless you actually eat that raw bison liver—and the separate but complimentary willingness to honor performers who change the shape of their body, through weight loss/gain or prosthetics. To that end, nothing seems to dazzle Oscar voters more than a famous person playing another famous person. And why wouldn’t it: Seeing an even halfway successful impression of some real icon’s specific mannerisms or speech patterns is about as close as you’re going to get to hard evidence that an actor has actually shape-shifted.
So where does this leave a performance by a non-famous person essentially playing herself? Out of the awards conversation, certainly. But it’s worth questioning whether disappearing into a role is truly the only mark of great acting; exciting as it can be to see someone twist themselves into a strange, magnetic shape or successfully resurrect the spirit of a bygone celebrity, there’s great value, too, in an actor creating a whole emotional reality in front of the camera—however close it may be to their own. Anyway, who’s really to say how much of the real Vitalina Varela we’re seeing in Vitalina Varela? We all become a version of ourselves when the camera’s running. And to chalk this amazing performance up to mere presence—to not acting, just appearing in front of the camera—is to speculatively diminish the skill in which Varela communicates, through words and her expressive features, the complicated breadth of her character’s agony. There is, too, a theatrical element to the film, as the onscreen Vitalina speaks aloud to her departed lover, in soliloquies that might break the heart of that other guy who once called eyes windows.
Costa can be a tough sit, even for those sympathetic to his dreamlike sensibilities; painterly command of shadow and decaying architecture; and enduring fascination with Fontainhas, the now-demolished Lisbon neighborhood where many of his films, including Vitalina Varela, are set. But there’s an avenue of easy access to his latest—a window even, to repurpose the metaphor—and it’s Varela herself. The naked display of her soul gives the film a relatability, an appeal a little closer to universal, that this director’s striking but esoteric work rarely possesses. All you need to lock into its power is to lock your own eyes on hers. If every AMPAS member did the same, there might be a welcome surprise coming on the morning of March 15.