“If It’s Love, It Must Work Out:” Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and Modes of Hauntology
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Pedro Costa’s most recent movie — Vitalina Varela (2019) — should be understood as breaking away from the hauntological structure that characterizes his previous films centered around the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon. It is necessary to understand the weight that gathers in the previous films of Costa’s depictions of the lives of Cape Verdeans in Lisbon to understand how Vitalina Varela herself refuses this primarily male articulation of being haunted by the undoing of the future and to understand how this involves a refusal of the proffered melancholic forms of mediation. The best place to locate this weight, against which Vitalina’s refusal can be most clearly seen, is against background discussions of hauntology and in the characters played by Ventura in Vitalina Varela, Cavalo Dinheiro, and Juventude em Marcha.
Pedro Costa’s most recent movie, Vitalina Varela (2019), begins with a slow procession of a funeral cortège that emerges from the almost total darkness of an alleyway bordering a cemetery wall. The priest, whether from exhaustion or the tremors that constantly shake his hands, is shown collapsed on the sidewalk. The audience, like Vitalina, has arrived too late to see the funeral service, and the priest’s exhaustion provokes the question how many dead have been buried in this dark night. In a recent interview with Film Comment, Costa himself describes the lives of those who are the subjects of his Cape Verdean movies as condemned long before they were born. But Costa’s Cape Verdean films are not simplified allegories of colonial violence or of damaged life in relation to this superhuman inheritance. There is nothing so abstract or diagnostic in these movies, and Vitalina Varela (‘VV’), in particular, represents a crowning achievement of this series not only because it takes up the perspective of a woman as exemplary as Mrs. Varela, but, uniquely in this series, VV celebrates the autonomy of its protagonist. But to see this autonomy rightly, we will need to contrast this against the primarily male dynamic of the earlier films in this series that begins with Casa de Lava (1994), and re-commences in the third film of his Cartas de Fontainhas trilogy, Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (2006), the short film Tarrafal (2007), and the precursor to VV, Cavalo Dinheiro [Horse Money] (2014) in which Mrs. Varela made her debut as herself.
VV wrests the narrative center of this series of films away from Ventura, who, as far as I know, never quite plays himself as such in the way that Mrs. Varela extensively portrays herself, and who is a constant appealing and enigmatic presence in the series from Juventude em Marcha through VV. It might be the specific biographical subtext of VV that shapes the film towards thinking of it as representing an achievement, and that consequently presents the other films in this visually and narratively stunning series as hopelessly trafficking in ghosts. But Costa’s movie is no documentary, though it contains correspondences with the experiences of Mrs. Varela, and it presents visually stunning moments that span beyond her narrative and connect VV with the earlier films. Costa’s movies in this series and beyond it (thinking primarily of Ossos  and No Quarto da Vanda ) are thought to achieve the status of testimonies. Indeed, the trilogy of Fontainhas films have been described as “tell[ing] us forcefully that it is up to art to cast in relief the world that has been lost.”
Within this testimonial, melancholic, and perhaps condemned environment, it is implausible to expect a depiction of meaningful routes for agency. Jacques Rancière, in his discussion of “The Politics of Pedro Costa,” describes the subjects of Costa’s films as destined to be marginalized. This fate of marginalization pushes the films into a kind of grim aestheticism (of which Rancière is understandably wary), meaning that the films, viewed from this angle, might be thought to be merely ornamenting or embellishing scenes of human misery by framing them (in Rancière’s words) in “a chiaroscuro of the Dutch Golden Age.” While Costa’s films are, generally, visually stunning, they do more than make a claim about the relation of art to the dispossessed. Indeed, to frame an analysis in these terms is to nullify the agency of the subjects of Costa’s films, or to regard their actions or interests as only the outer attenuating ripples of an anterior colonial impact. Against this victimized framework, Costa’s movies are deeply concerned with the representation of lives, the concerns that are made significant and the nature of this significance itself, that are set in the routines and networks unfolding from a complex colonial inheritance. To begin from the generalized condemnation or fatedness of Costa’s subjects is to avoid noticing the ways in which they are constantly negotiating attempting to come to terms with a past or a future.
Avenues of Hauntology
Orthogonally to Rancière’s treatment, I propose that it is of paramount importance to think about VV through the lens of the concept of hauntology. In many ways, as we will see below, thinking of VV along this axis helps us appreciate it as a turning away from the melancholic or temporally dislocated repetitions of the predominantly male characters in Costa’s previous films. It is this paper’s claim that hauntology is the proper lens for understanding how VV’s difference from the logic of a beautifully framed victimization by distant (in terms of both a wider scale and in the sense of being historically far in the past) and colonially centrifugal forces that, per Rancière, are exhibited in Costa’s earlier films. Towards the end of this paper I claim that VV’s singularity here can be glimpsed in the change from melancholia to mourning, and I shall say something about that connection (between responses to hauntology, melancholy, and mourning) here.
The punning portmanteau, ‘hauntology,’ first emerged in Derrida and has been a central concept in the popular critical work of Mark Fisher. The use of the concept by both Derrida and Fisher is rooted in what might be called the equally ethical and socio-political demand to locate or identify lost possibilities and to consider what the pursuit of these might mean. In Derrida, this term spun out of his engagement with a reading of ghost scenes in Hamlet as a frame for thinking about the specter that Marx and Engels announced was haunting Europe. And while, in 1994 at least (if not more so today), some of the scholarly world was captivated by Western Liberal Democracy viewed through the lens of Fukuyama (1992) as having accomplished the End of History, Derrida’s approach engages with this notion of the telos of history but his primary concern lies elsewhere.
In the introductory “Exordium” to Specters of Marx, Derrida makes it plain that one of the central concerns of his use of the idea of ‘hauntology’ is not, primarily, to speculate about the fate of communism or the putative End of History but instead his initial purpose is to consider the lines with which the presence of vanished possibilities informs the expression of the ethical desire to learn, at last, how to live. In many ways this Derridean line bears immensely on the unfolding of VV, since this “heterodidactics between life and death” as “ethics itself: to learn to live — alone, from oneself, by oneself” is essentially what Vitalina Varela herself learns through VV, hemmed-in by lost possibilities and even by ghosts. The place of this hauntological-ethical tutelage in VV presents a way of stepping aside from the wreckage of victimization that occupies Rancière’s discussion of Costa’s earlier films. The discussion at the beginning of the next section regarding the constant emphasis that there is nothing in Lisbon for Vitalina underscores the way that her project, the central arc of the film, is not constrained by actually existing conditions. As Derrida remarks: “The time of the ‘learning to live,’ a time without tutelary present, would amount to this...: to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company or companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise...more justly.”
I take Derrida’s emphasis here on justice, and the idea of learning to live with ghosts, as a way of signaling the transformative work of mourning (in contrast to what I will call a kind of melancholic life at the mercy or behest of lost possibilities). But before discussing Fisher’s approach, which I think bears more resemblances to the melancholic life that reflects upon these ghosts (and so, to many of the men in Costa’s series, represented later in this paper by Ventura), I wish to underline how this spectral dimension takes it form precisely in the situation of Vitalina Varela, where “[i]t is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable....” VV is a film that celebrates the accomplishment of Mrs. Varela, carried out across years and a vast ocean, carried out in the loss of her husband, carried out precisely with these absences fully present to her and as conspicuously missing for the film’s audience, and, in Derrida’s framework, VV becomes a film about justice: “this justice carries life beyond present life or its actual being-there, its empirical or ontological actuality: not toward death but toward a living-on [sur-vie]... a survival whose possibility in advance comes to disjoin or dis-adjust the identity to itself of the living present....” It is only through the dimension of what Derrida is outlining as justice (but which we might also describe as mourning, or perhaps more simply, if ambiguously, as love) that Vitalina’s living-on in her disjuncture with the present of Lisbon at which she arrives early in VV.
Costa’s films allow this ghostly presence to unfold in different ways. The series of Cape Verdean movies depicts two avenues for pursuing this disjoined temporal-historical condition. The first is one that I have already described as mourning, and that Derrida describes in the Exordium to Specters of Marx as a kind of justice. Briefly, this might be said to be the Hamlet condition, where one finds that the ‘time is out of joint’ and understands oneself as having a vocation to set it right. The Derridean-Varelian line understands the “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present” as a project, something to be worked through or reckoned with, as laden with personal responsibility even though (at least initially), as Vitalina is repeatedly told upon her arrival, there is nothing for her there, nothing for her to do, she is too late. That from which her obligation emanates is precisely not given objectively; her responsibility is sourced from beyond the living present.
The second avenue is shaped by the hauntology outlined by Mark Fisher to describe the melancholy resulting from the disappearance of projected futures. Fisher’s use of the notion as a tool for cultural analysis is indebted not only to Derrida but also to Franco Berardi as, particularly, the “cancellation of the future.” Fisher is keen to distinguish hauntology from the familiar nostalgia for the past, but he accepts that there is at least a “formal nostalgia” or a longing for “processes” that had at least been announced (even if through thick ideological lenses) for greater democratization or pluralism in local or global communities. For Fisher, these terms are no longer credible even as red herrings, unable to function as a bait for popular credulity, and his concern with hauntology focuses exactly on this as having been lost: “What should haunt us is not the no longer of actual existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised.”
Hauntology, in Fisher’s hands, resembles nostalgia (but, we might say, for lost futures, not for the receding past), and he readily associates it with a “failed mourning” which consists “in a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ — even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time.” We will see examples of this mode of failed mourning and being outcast in one’s own time through several of the male characters from Costa’s Cape Verdean films.
There are, thus, important differences between Derrida and Fisher on the subject of hauntology. Their accounts differ with respect to the relative weight given to the sense of possibility, and which direction of temporality informs the spectral directive. In Fisher and in several of the male characters in Costa’s films, the failure of the future becomes a spiritual cessation and compulsion to repeat outmoded cultural forms. Also, in Fisher and in many of the male characters of Costa’s series about the lives of Cape Verdeans in the orbit of Lisbon, the liberating key would be an objective correlate to unlock and grant significance to erstwhile repetitive meandering. For Fisher, importantly, there is a sense that what goes by the name of the twenty-first century must have the “feel” of the future, of having advanced on the nineties in some way to dispel the sense of pointless belatedness.
But Derrida’s Exordium makes it clear that his understanding of hauntology is not the result of an external failure as such, but, rather, is a common aspect of all ethical concern. Or, at least, it need not be the sort of messianic failure that Fisher’s approach laments. The basic normative concept of ‘justice’ requires, in Derrida, a proximate understanding that one is acting in fealty towards both the living and those who are not present (either dead or not yet alive). These non-presences are invoked by any ethical or political concern worthy of its name; even the case of learning how to live, by oneself, finally, requires a one-sided commerce without exchange or socius without understanding. In Derrida’s formulations: no ethics, no justice, no responsibility is possible that “does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those who are not yet there.” And Derrida’s conception of justice, one might say, is so absolute that it includes a necessarily open-ended conception of those others (as past or potential future victims) to whom one owes consideration even though they are not at all present to one’s immediate concerns. Derrida describes this concern as secretly unhinging the present, and so maps onto the phenomenal feel of Fisher’s melancholic haunting as producing a sense of being “outcast” in one’s own time. It is important to recall here that the cause of this unhinging is always a notable absence, a chain linked through something essentially not present (or conspicuously absent in any materialist or objective sense). But it is equally important to be aware of the different responses, different modes of response, to this absence: the Derridean line, here associated with Vitalina Varela herself, which pursues the mourning work of loving adjustment, committed by an absolute claim evidenced in a telling remark of hers captured by the title of this paper, and a melancholic line, associated with Fisher’s reading and many of the male characters of the series of Costa’s films under discussion here.
Having briefly outlined the uses made of this enigmatic term, I will now describe these different hauntologies through the lenses of Costa’s Cape Verdean films. The films themselves allow us to situate both avenues of approach to the idea of hauntology, and they body forth the different modes of response just mentioned in ways that both clarify the distinction between the two avenues for understanding the uses of hauntology but also help clarify the ways that the films themselves can usefully be understood to be more than merely the gorgeously ornamented memorial testaments to victims as they might otherwise be taken to be.
There is Nothing for You Here: Mnemonic Traces and Layers
VV begins with a funerary procession away from a burial, and offers the audience a glimpse into some of the routines of postmortem arrangements. It seems exactly pertinent to wonder how many have been buried along with Joaquim (Vitalina’s husband). Vitalina is told upon her arrival that she has arrived too late, her husband has already been buried three days before, and that there is nothing there for her. But was there ever anything for Vitalina Varela in Lisbon? When would her arrival have been timely? The ways in which anything could actually have been said to be there for her are each revealed to have been betrayed or buried some three days before. Her refusal to leave things that way, as betrayed and buried, as nothing, is a refusal to come to that sort of passive agreement with fate, to have things, generally, given for her. Her insistence to construct a home for herself, against the passive reception of the nothing offered to her, is what the film celebrates and places VV in a different category than those earlier members of this series presided over, one might say, by Ventura’s melancholy and collapsing priest.
Costa’s interiors are often compared with Dutch Baroque-style paintings (see Rancière’s mention above), accompanied by noting the quality of light in the depths of the secular world, but his shots in streets, or even in the passageways between the staggering constructions that house the lives he lingers with, are nothing if not members of the metaphysical spaces painted by Griorgio de Chirico. The vertiginous structures — which Pedro Costa’s mastery of close spaces renders as the cells of ascetics or prisoners, as kin to Liebskind’s Garten des Exils, and as the stifling slums of Kafka’s places of justice — inhabited by Costa’s human subjects challenge the belief that the time has ever been right for them to receive or house human lives. Human lives and their habitations all seem to be persisting in ways that defy gravity. “There is nothing for you here:” this statement could be sent to any of the characters of Costa’s movies and be received as a personal truth. Except for Vitalina. Centering the film on Vitalina emphasizes the differences in experience between the men and the women who have been part of the circuit of labor travelling to Lisbon and then sending or failing to send back to Cape Verde for their past commitments, completing a project of attaining a future desired at one point, and, among the presences of Costa’s Cape Verdean series, only Vitalina, is on the way to completing this loop from the past to the present. Vitalina’s resolve for the past to matter, for a past that can meaningfully be her own, to be recognizable or claimable as hers, sets her apart from the men of these movies.
As a member of the series of Costa’s films about Cape Verdeans in relation to Lisbon, VV gathers elements of light and darkness that stylize Costa’s earlier films in this series, it gathers bodies present in mute petition for something unknown and which cannot be offered within their present world, it channels the flow of ghosts from temporally or geographically distant pasts of the earlier films, but yet it breaks from the earlier films of the Cape Verdean series by offering something other than a damnation to (in a phrase from the predecessor to VV, Cavalo Dinheiro) “lay with the dead, locked in silence.” Vitalina offers meals to the men who are frequently in her home to apparently mourn Joaquim, but who remain as impedimenta, sitting or standing in silent non-petition, but it is her meals that evoke for them the idea of a home. And, importantly for my purposes here, she offers advice, an authoritative reminder, to a homeless young man, Ntoni, who is not sure if things will work out with his partner Marina. Vitalina advises him “if it’s love, it must work out.” This immediate confidence in the effort of love to find a way — a confidence which in her case has been tested and perhaps fortified by the betrayals and neglect she has experienced — singles her out as bearing a faith that is of an entirely different order than that of Ventura’s melancholic priest.
As much as the structures housing the lives of the persons in the opening of VV disorient the audience, just so the language and, at times, the lives of the characters in the series appear governed only by an oneiric disorder. Towards the beginning of Cavalo Dinheiro, Ventura is visited by four figures from his past, (Lento, Ventura’s pupil in Juventude em Marcha, reduced to medicinally-administered tranquility; Benvindo, who has fallen from the third floor in a factory accident; a silent man who has destroyed his good job, potentially murdered his family, and destroyed his house in an act of arson; an unintroduced apparition of Joaquim, later identified in Cavalo as the husband of Vitalina, who bears most of the narrative of this sequence; and yet another silent and unintroduced compatriot in the background). Joaquim, who has already declared that he and Ventura are bound in life and death, continues his explanation of the various traumas suffered by those visiting Ventura by announcing that the military police, who apparently run the hospital where they are kept, can do nothing to them all, and he justifies this response by announcing the logic governing their experiences:
Our life will still be hard. We’ll keep on falling from the third floor. We’ll keep on being severed by the factory machines. Our head and lungs will still hurt the same. We’ll be burned. We’ll go crazy. It’s all the mold in the walls of our houses. We always lived and died this way. This is our sickness.
This prophecy wends its way into the following moments of Cavalo Dinheiro when, in response to a doctor’s question of whether whatever befell Ventura will happen again, Ventura responds that it certainly will, and then, in response to the doctor’s question whether Ventura can describe what happened to him, he merely replies “It’s because of the mold in our walls.” This coyness in response functions as a code that eludes the official or medical registry and is intelligible as a response to the question only through the memory of the film’s audience. But if the audience is meant to understand itself as being on the ‘inside’ of a joke at the expense of the official record, the audience is quickly shoved out of this position of privilege by the response to a question a few moments later: (Doctor:) “Do you sleep well? Do you wake up in the middle of the night?” (Ventura:) “A big black bird landed on my roof.”
From these exchanges alone, the audience must acknowledge that so much of the language spoken may potentially be encoded and that the criteria for understanding what is said by the characters of Costa’s movies may not always be immediately shared with or given to the audience. Even when the big black bird returns late in Cavalo Dinheiro in a harrowing scene of Ventura being tormented by his past, shut in an elevator with a metallic soldier who demonically harasses Ventura at the end of his life (“You have no destiny nor horizon. You are and have nothing”) with a repository of past moments that Ventura would as sooner neglect and an unwelcome anti-prophet, (“This is the story of young life, of life yet to come and of all things to follow”) foretelling a “day [that] will come when we accept our suffering. There will be no more fear nor mystery.” The big black bird, like other moments of this exchange, appears only as a private historical object, a condensed ledger or symbol whose full measure is withheld from the audience’s grasp. By contrast, the essentially open audience for Vitalina’s reminder about the imperatives and obligations of love, its basis in an uncoded understanding of fundamental meaning, already speaking a kind of higher language that relies on the full significance of what is meant when certain things are said or promised, pushes her into a unique place in these films.
Almost everyone else in this series is, in some manner, unconnected to the films’ present. In response to the doctor’s question (in Cavalo Dinheiro) whether Ventura knows what day it is, he responds “Eleventh of March, 1975.” That date might have been recognized by the doctor, and may be understood by those audience members familiar with the details of Portuguese history as the commencement of an attempted coup against the populist government that had been set up nearly one year beforehand, which ended what was called the Estado Novo. The Estado Novo (1926-1974) was known chiefly by its repressive, costly, and unsuccessful campaign in Portugal’s colonies in Africa, and the liberating period (the “Carnation Revolution”) that displaced the Estado Novo was briefly threatened by an attempted and drastically insufficient right-wing coup on the eleventh of March 1975. In claiming that his present is that day, and then claiming that the current president of Portugal “must be that General Spínola” (i.e., the perceived mastermind of the attempted coup against the new left government), what appears to the audience ignorant of these events as Ventura’s madness is in fact yet another kind of coding. To remain at the date of the attempted coup of March 11, 1975 is to be disconnected from the revolution’s first fruits: the independence of the African colonies (including Ventura’s native Cape Verde, on July 5, 1975, only a few months later). Essentially, the date of Ventura’s present moment is a date when the liberating movements away from the period of Estado Novo are in peril, and his supposition that the president must be General Spínola is to claim, in code, that his moment is a time when he is still a colonized subject.
The supremacy of this unhinged and magical temporality, unseen or barely heard provocations, entire scenes of being possessed by a vanished past (e.g., in Cavalo, Ventura paces about the ruins of the old building company, making a call on a smashed telephone to receive an order, and he encounters Benvindo who is awaiting his salary as if for Godot) is but one manner in which historical forces seem to have robbed Costa’s characters of their agency, and where their interests or attention cannot be located in what is visually present to them or the audience. I say ‘seem’ because, the inexorable mystery of these films is how anyone moves at all, how anyone is able to go on in the construction of a house, in the upkeep of a ruined church, in the least routine; because Costa’s characters do go on, with cherished private objects and circuits of commerce with each other and their environs, in ways that make Beckett’s characters seem privileged to be, say, more demonic than phantasmic. The films’ moment is not a space in which these characters can meaningfully act, rather these lives are administered ones, whether by hospital/prison staff, by a real estate agent, or by coded beacons that haphazardly light up from the past in conversation. Thus, Ventura characteristically reminisces (as the character ‘Ventura’ of Juventude em Marcha or the character ‘Ventura’ in Cavalo Dinheiro), and, for similar reasons, this is why Vitalina almost introduces herself to the audience of Cavalo Dinheiro by naming the past date which still lingers over her life (a date she only knows from official letters she received about the death and burial of her husband).
The entangling of the past in Cavalo Dinheiro’s present is not to suggest that Ventura is fully attentive or responsive to what might be thought of as his biographical past. Vitalina, less intensively than the demon soldier who later traps Ventura in the elevator, casually reminds him of Zulmira, his wife in Cape Verde, to which he responds by confessing that he already has had the money to send her a ticket. He then begins to take a cursory or nostalgic interest in other neglected things of his past in conversation with Vitalina, his house (of which Vitalina tells him “not a stone is left standing”), his pigs and goats (“all ran away”), his donkey, Fogo Serra (“dead”), and his horse [i.e., cavalo], Dinheiro (“The vultures tore him to pieces”). The very title of the film, Cavalo Dinheiro, is revealed to be one of these private codes, a transfigured subject of neglect, a forgotten creature abandoned and long-dead, which had only been preserved in a phantom possibility of life by being buried under years of silence.
Finding a Home, Putting Words to Rest
The character of Vitalina in Cavalo Dinheiro reminds Ventura not only of his neglected obligations to his wife, but she also reminds Ventura of his role, in Cavalo Dinheiro, of bringing about the despair that killed Joaquim. Only after reciting letters from official bodies, detailing information related to the burial of her husband, her birth, her marriage, all of which cannot approach a truthful account of her situation, does she put to Ventura the claim that he had brought ruin to her and Joaquim by cutting Joaquim’s arm during a fight so as to render it paralyzed. It is impossible to tell if this same accusation carries over into VV, as the circumstances surrounding Joaquim’s death in VV do not mention any sort of paralysis, and Ventura is a different avatar of the Ventura character. What further complicates or blurs the distinction between the movies is Ventura’s (i.e., the actor’s) presence as the priest of an empty church. This priest, too, is fleeing a personal shame from Cape Verde (related to his refusal to baptize or bless a group of people who are shortly killed in a gruesome car crash). The priest passes his time alternating between repeating certain phrases to himself or beseeching God to cast His eyes to the “shadows.” In many ways, it is not obvious that Ventura-as-a-Priest is meant to be a different character than, say, the Ventura of Juventude em Marcha.
Juventude em Marcha is structured by the presence of similar themes as VV — acquiring a proper living space, reflecting on love — only it is clear that each of these themes in Juventude can never be brought to fulfillment by Ventura. In Juventude, Ventura (every bit the priest) is seeking to teach Lento how to write a love letter by memorizing a canonical example, he visits with members of his family (his parochial ‘children’), and spends time seeing potential homes for his family (potential individuals who the real estate agent plainly alleges do not exist). Ventura’s positive activity in Juventude, which becomes the despairing mirror-image of Vitalina’s activity in VV, is a negotiation with the structures available to him in Lisbon. His pedagogy in writing love letters is to repeat a letter that has its origin in the first of Costa’s movies of this sequence — Casa de Lava — where the details must become impersonal, where the expressions in which love could be communicated are the words of another, whose only relevance is predicated upon the presumption that the experiences of all Cape Verdeans in Lisbon, of all the women in Cape Verde waiting for word from their husbands, is essentially the same. It is the use of this kind of impersonality here, the presumed sameness of the experience of all Cape Verdeans, which is brought into delicate tension with the indelible singular personality, the subjectivity, of both Ventura and the letter writer.
What is perhaps eerie is Ventura’s conviction that the canonical love letter is obviously of use to Lento, but this conviction is no different than the conviction that popular songs can serve as vehicles for expressing the suffering of “hard work, cheap labor” (Ventura in Cavalo will start singing some of these in quiet moments with his compatriots). The very impersonality of the letter — which promises the intended reader 100,000 cigarettes, a dozen fancy dresses, a car, and “that little house of lava you’ve always dreamt of” — serves as a kind of shield against the burden of a more personal confrontation, a more intimate expression fit to the life of the addressee and of the writer. This impersonal tutelage of the letter, in Juventude, is amplified by the actual broken record which Ventura plays for Lento, which is a recording full of skips or repetitions of a song celebrating the revolutionary leader, Amílcar Cabral, and only appears in Juventude as an homage to the dream of a future that never came about. Ventura, in Juventude and beyond, thus promises a kind of education via recollection, but the lessons available to recall have only led to the end of his being imprisoned, prone to collapsing, apparently delirious, or homeless.
Dwelling in the impersonality or objectification of the colonized would be to rob Ventura of the guilt that manifests itself in such thorough and differentiated encounters in Cavalo, and of course it would be an approach that leaves Vitalina with nothing, waiting at the office for her husband’s pension in the same way that Benvindo awaits his salary. Whether through compassion or guilt Ventura, convincingly or not, is shown in Cavalo ghostwriting, one assumes, a letter from Joaquim and giving it to Vitalina, and even if the letter promises 100,000 cigarettes and a house of lava (the contents of that letter are not revealed), it still only finds its place there through Ventura, and still generates a smile from Vitalina in her exit from Cavalo. It is also important to notice that the career of the letter comes to an end in Cavalo, that Vitaliina does not spend her time memorizing these impersonal and encoded words of love. The letter does not appear in VV, and Vitalina makes it clear that she already knows what love means.
From Melancholy to Mourning
As the custodian of privileged words or incantations, it might be easy to blur the character differences between Ventura in Juventude and Ventura-as-Priest in VV. Ventura-as-priest tells Vitalina that if she would like to speak to her dead husband, she will have to learn Portuguese. As the language of the redeemed world, or as a means for making sense of oneself and truly communicating with the dead, in the Priest’s advice, Portuguese stands to the Creole spoken by Costa’s characters in the same way that the modern apartments stand to Ventura in his quest for a home in Juventude. But perhaps by way of twisting an insight of Wittgenstein’s, that to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life, the notion that speaking Portuguese will help Vitalina into a new form of life, or at least allow her to develop an understanding of the dead, and to properly mourn her husband is the inversion of the cruel and insensitive thought that the possibilities for communication available to Creole speakers in Lisbon reveal almost no form of life at all. “There is nothing for you here.” Vitalina, as an emblem of the resolute hope to be able to inhabit her own living space in her dead husband’s house, will of course stick to Creole in talking to her dead husband in that house. And, as in the above exchange with Ntoni, she does not offer any intermediary steps in learning what it would mean to love someone or to communicate that love. This, we might say, is the moment of Derridean heterodidactics, something taught to a living being beyond its own experiences. It draws from a wholly other register than the homogeneous didactic materials imparted via tradition in Ventura. In a similarly Wittgensteinian register, she only offers reminders of what such a commitment would involve in the furnishing of a home (e.g., a roof) or, as in Cavalo, actually sending word for your marriage partner to join you. This is essentially a denial of the position that Ventura (in his many manifestations) has been performing across Costa’s Cape Verde movies by dwelling among what must appear to be selective ghosts, unable to face the hardest memory of a personal infidelity to the past.
The peculiarly awkward misfit between the spoken language and the muted inner demands of each character of Costa’s movies is a particular expression of a more general misfit between the forms of structures or conventions of expression and what might be variously described as reality, the needs of the soul or of life. We might thereby say that there is an internal imbalance, a constitutive violence, that structures the form of life of Costa’s Cape Verdeans. This is to say that the imposition of form, a requirement for the intelligibility of what is expressed, leaves these characters without much to say to each other. And it is Costa’s brilliance to maintain and linger in the presentation of a violence that has reduced his characters to languidly staring at the walls.
The dissonance between form and life has been a sticking point of literary aesthetics at least explicitly since the early work of Lukács (Soul and Form and Theory of the Novel). The “second nature” of artificial forms described in Theory of the Novel seems especially fitting for Costa’s Cape Verdean movies:
This second nature... is a complex of senses — meanings — which has become rigid and strange, and which no longer awakens interiority; it is a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities; this second nature could only be brought to life — if this were possible — by the metaphysical act of reawakening the souls which, in an early or ideal existence, created or preserved it; it can never be animated by another interiority. It is too akin to the soul’s aspirations to be treated by the soul as mere raw material for moods, yet too alien to those aspirations ever to become their appropriate and adequate expression. Estrangement from nature (the first nature), the modern sentimental attitude to nature, is only a projection of man’s experience of his self-made environment as a prison instead of as a parental home.
In Costa’s own words in the transcript of a lecture given at Tokyo Film School in 2004 (“A Closed Door that Leaves us Guessing”), he describes the primary function of cinema is to “make us feel that something isn’t right.” But rather than understanding this imprisonment or this dissonance as something that has been imposed by an internally necessary development of spirit, culture, capitalism, etc., Costa's films evade grand diagnoses and instead his camera is occupied by these muted lives. There is thus something of Benjamin’s Angel of History at work in these films, wishing to stay with and awaken the dead but pulled away by the onrush of progress.
But it seems to me best to frame the accomplishment of VV as a turning away from the hauntology that characterized the earlier films of this series. We only need think of Benvindo awaiting the salary he is owed, or the Ventura of Juventude listening to the festive song celebrating Cabral to understand (along the lines of what Fisher has laid out) that “what is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of processes of democratisation and pluralism” (2014: 26), “what should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect.” (2014: 27) The curious temporality of Ventura’s present day in Cavalo is one articulation of the failure of the promised future to unfold. It is precisely Vitalina’s refusal of this melancholy, along with the memorial or bureaucratic mediation with which Ventura is constantly negotiating, that serves to complete a figural arch extending from her present establishment in Lisbon back to her prior dream of a house in Cape Verde.
VV is, then, a turn away from the masculine and melancholic hauntology of the earlier films, the logic of the Angelus Novus, who would remain with the injustices of the past, a logic that has presented the Ventura character as mobbed by ghosts, and, in his priestly manifestation, to claim that “It is pleasing to the Lord when his servant dies” because at least all of the bitterness of labor is over. When he shouts “It is poison!”, referring to the labor and hardship faced by the Cape Verdeans upon arrival in Lisbon, it is clear, by this reading, that he is equally contemptuous of all the available mediating forms (Lukácsian second nature) that serve in the flailing effort of assimilating to the present in which he, in his other roles earlier in the sequence of Costa’s Cape Verde movies, had taken up an unstable residence.
Ventura presides over the mystical body of the dead, but Vitalina, we might say, is shaping her life outside of the poison which has infected the male immigrants of Costa’s series, and, as is suggested by VV’s final image, her efforts are given the reward of a closure, across time and space, of which the male characters had only ever been given fantasies. She has done so through her otherworldly commitment, maintaining her own position as directly responsive and responsible for not only a vanished future but also a loyalty to her own past and ideals. This effort of enduring persistence for an apparently temporally unhinged telos is an effort of mourning in the sense made abundantly clear at the close of VV that she has completed the narrative arc of a temporal unfolding of her life in ways that Ventura and the other male characters described above are not able. Not only an inquiry into an experience which is emblematic of the experience of Cape Verdean women, VV thus represents a movement in Costa’s series away from melancholic forms of hauntology and towards mourning, or, what could rightly be said to be the commitment announced in the Derridean account of hauntology.
I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer at Film Criticism for kind words of encouragement in the drafting stage, Rodrigo Brum for his helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper, and I would especially like to thank Marianna Poyares for, among other things, her organizational eye, her patient reading, and tireless support here and elsewhere.
Edward Guetti teaches in the Philosophy Departments at Hunter College (CUNY) and at Saint Francis College (Brooklyn). He works on issues in philosophy of language, aesthetics, and moral philosophy.
1. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Frames and Bodies — Notes on Three Films by Pedro Costa: Ossos, No Quarto da Vanda, Juventude em Marcha” in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry. (2010) 24: 62-70; cited material is on p. 62
2. In Jacques Rancière, Les écarts du cinéma (Paris, La Fabrique éditions: 2011), 137-153. Also available in translation here: https://www.diagonalthoughts.com/?p=1546
19. Although Spínola was in 1974 a “celebrated national hero” in part because of his pro-decolonizing views expressed in his book Portugal and the Future [Portugal e o Futuro, (1974)], he seemed to accept blame by seeking asylum following the abortive coup in March 1975 to retake power from the increasing alignment of left-wing political parties and military forces. For “celebrated national hero” see Eduardo de Sousa Ferreira “An Analysis of the ‘Spínola Affair’” Africa Today (1974) 22.1: 69-73, and for the perception of his culpability for the coup see, e.g., the Thames Television report from March 20, 1975 available online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RJfOA8W1nE, accessed May 12, 2020) or the front page of The New York Times March 12, 1975, “Lisbon Says it Foiled Coup After Attack on Loyal Unit.”
20. It is doubly important to note here that the letter itself has a somewhat blurred or doubled origin. See Rancière’s essay, mentioned in note 2, for an account of the letter that stems actually from the prison/labor-camp at Tarrafal, in the background of the narrative of Casa de Lava, and also, per Ranciѐre “from a camp Flöha in Saxony, a way stop on the road to Terezin, and death.” Thus, as a symbol that is charged with the historical overtones of colonial punitive exclusion, forced labor, and genocidal mass murder, the drive to learn the letter, a tuition that so successfully encrypts the genesis of the letter as a monumental big black bird, takes on a very poignant historical weight.