CIFF Reviews: Atlantics, Vitalina Varela, and Invisible Life

Other than love, no human emotion permeates as potently as loss—partly because grief is love’s complication. At the Chicago International Film Festival, three foreign language pictures: Atlantics, Vitalina Varela, and Invisible Life intimately reinvent the melodrama to heartening effect— accomplished through exemplary filmmaking, in three nourishing portraits of loss.

On the shores of Dakar, the capital city of Senegal—surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean’s lightning striking waves, sees Mati Diop’s Atlantics: which in its wake  leaves a ghost story enlivened by love and economic instability. 

In Dakar, a skyscraper, mirroring a glass Barad-dûr, remains unfinished as chaos holds sway. Senegalese construction workers perform near mutiny, as the developer Mr Ndiaye (Diankou Sembeneowes) owes many of these young men up to three months worth of backpay. One of these workers is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré): who’s madly in love with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane, giving a sensational performance)—betrothed to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) in an arranged marriage. While Souleiman and Ada’s teenage affection for one another courses deeply, the economic struggle in Darkar remains cavernous. To make real money, the young men: including Souleiman, board a boat to Spain—braving the long and arduous journey across the ocean. 

Atlantics sets off as a tale of star-crossed lovers: Ada and Souleiman separated by an ocean. But after her wedding bed mysteriously becomes engulfed in flames, it turns into Ada’s struggle for independence, eschewing the control of her parents and Omar. In the meantime, eyewitness reports say that Souleiman—who should still be at sea—set the fire. Inspector Cheikh (Abdou Balde) comes to investigate, but the origins of this crime crests in several phantasmagorical swells.  

Diop fashions a mood: a deliberate swirl of Ada’s grief and her struggles against sexism. Often, in these instances, Diop can be caught solely existing in a stream of spirits rather than moving through a series of terrifying events. She absorbs the surroundings, catching the sounds of waves and the torn down dusty winds. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon, we’re entranced by haunting specters—where the sun, the haze, and the ocean’s water soaking Dakar and Ada are bathe in regret. And by that same token, Diop—under the sun, the haze, and the ocean’s water—fashions a mesmerizing piece on love’s survival—even under the weight of oppression.   

The Cape Verde set Pedro Costa film Vitalina Varela opens with impressionistic strains of mourning: Black men in suits walking down a somber compact lane with crosses planted high above the surrounding walls, foreshadows this somber tale of loss youth that mixes horror and magical realism.

Set in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas, and starring the eponymous Vitalina Varela—who previously starred in the Costa’s Horse Money, Varela arrives back upon the death of her husband. The now deceased man—who she built a house with, then left her and promised to bring her to Lisbon—left multiple broken promises. Varela is left to sort through feelings of abandonment and betrayal, while confronting the secrets left by a person she may never have really known. Along the way, she meets a guilt-ridden priest (Ventura). He spends his days wandering the streets of Fontainhas mumbling prayers to his long gone parishioners, devout believers he turned away and then lost in a bus accident. Varela, once part of his flock as a young girl, now needs him. She yearns to speak to her husband, to gain the answers left unchecked in life, to move on.

Costa weaves their plight through mesmerizing dreamlike nocturnal images, sourcing from magical realism to adorn discussions of mourning and death: One can only speak to the dead through Portuguese says Ventura. Vitalina Varela lends itself to instances of lyrical beauty. A storyteller should always understand when logic impedes upon poetic interpretation, and Costa, more than any other knows such. Does he need to explain the metaphorical domestic doom of Varela living in the crumbling house her husband built? Is he required to justify these divine moments, like a silhouetted Valera standing upon her roof while the wind violently whips around her? No, masters of the elegiac need not measure every somber sigh. In this Portuguese drama, Costa proves his immense talent for matching the esoteric with the human.       

The author Antonya Nelson once remarked on William Trevor’s short story ‘Folie à Deux,’ “[it’s] a connection that once existed,” or the loss of a friend. We initially see Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler) sitting on a smooth rocky beach, surrounded by the jungle. Later, they lose each other among those hostage taking trees, a metaphorical opening for the wilderness of life and oppressive gender roles that halts their close sisterhood in Karim Aïnouz’s hauntingly melodramatic Invisible Life.   

Set during the 1950’s in Rio de Janeiro, Eurídice and Guida’s separation begins very early. The teenage Eurídice dreams of studying piano at a conservatory in Vienna. Guida is entangled in a relationship with a Greek sailor Iorgos. After a night of romance, where she leaves her sister to cover for her, Guida runs off to marry her beau. That decision will have dire consequences for both as Eurídice becomes married to the feeble Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) while Guida is left pregnant by the playboy Iorgos. The now childbearing sister is disowned by her father and cut off from all contact from Eurídice.

Aïnouz’s narrative is made all the more poignant because of how unnervingly close Eurídice and Guida come to reuniting and the multiple ways morally weak patriarchal figures lock them away. Partly epistolary, their father holds onto their years-long correspondence, hiding them from each respective party—proverbial messages in a bottle left adrift due to an obstinate tide. Moreover, Guida can’t travel to Vienna to search for her sister because the law doesn’t allow a passport to a woman without her husband’s signature. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to Guida, Eurídice remains landlocked from traveling to Vienna by a husband who believes his wife’s place is at home. All the while, both live decades in Rio de Janeiro without the other knowing. The events move with the wistfulness of a dream, and the emotional trauma of a nightmare.

Lost in the metaphorical jungle, the gulf between their sisterhood spans mere blocks. However, the true tragedy of Karim Aïnouz’s potent Invisible Life arrives with how long they spend before they know relief.  


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