Costa’s earlier films have shown how his country’s history has left Cabo Verdeans wounded in ways that even he still struggles to understand. Vitalina Varela emphasizes that, even among the people connected by this collective experience, a gendered chasm yawns wide. Men have flocked to Portugal for work, while many women have stayed behind. This divide between the masculine sphere of hard metropolitan labor and the feminized motherland breeds fierce antagonisms. In one scene, Vitalina lets her fury lash out: “When you see a woman’s face in the coffin, you can’t imagine her suffering.” An enmity this deep seems irreparable within a world as drawn to stasis as Costa’s. Yet the film ends on a note of hope, even a kind of resurrection.
The Golden Age of Mexican cinema began soon after the arrival of sound in the early 1930s and ended sometime between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s. Here in the United States, the story isn’t told much at all, and when it is, the details are usually hazy. The signature achievements of the Western hemisphere’s second-most-robust film industry in the decades surrounding World War II are rarely screened in American repertory cinemas. Diligent auteurists may have a couple of points of reference: the Spaniard-in-exile Luis Buñuel and the cinematic muralist Emilio Fernández. Camped out somewhere in that landscape is Roberto Gavaldón, the subject of a thirteen-film retrospective now playing at MoMA.