Who is Bárbara Virgínia?
By Marina Brafa
Do you know the only female director whose film was in competition at the first 1946 Cannes film festival?
Yes? Congrats! Skip the first paragraph! No? Find out here: Her name is Maria de Lourdes Dias Costa, better known by her stage name Bárbara Virgínia. This Woman in Film was born on November 15, 1923 in Lisbon, Portugal. In just two years, 1946-1947, she shot or starred in a total of five movies. In 1952, she moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she resided until her death at the age of 92 on March 7, 2015.
Here, Bárbara Virgínia’s story could end. Fortunately for us, it does not. Let’s add some more flesh to the bones and reveal the story of a female filmmaker trying to make her way in the male-dominated Portuguese cinema business of the 1940s.
During that time, Portugal was governed by an authoritarian fascist regime, the so-called “Estado Novo,” that came into power in 1933 and would continue until 1974. Briefly, the ideology of this regime regarding women was the following: A woman’s function was to stay at home for reproductive purposes, to care for husband and children, to fulfill the daily chores of a household and be silent for that matter. Moreover, despite the political oppression women suffered, Portugal had (and has) the reputation of being a patriarchal society where it is difficult for women to break through the glass ceiling. Still today, the number of Portuguese women who directed a movie between 2012 and 2016 is only 13% (according to a 2017 study for the Les Arcs European Film Festival). So just imagine how it must have been for Virgínia in the 1940s.
But let’s turn back a bit further, to the 1920s and 1930s as Bárbara Virgínia was growing up. She was born into a well-off family, her father being a Navy officer and her mother a housewife. She attended the National Conservatory and was able to establish a network of friends and acquaintances in the political and cultural realm. As an artistic middle-class woman, Virgínia was forced to live between these two poles: artistic liberalism that came with her work and conservative morality based on her familial origins. This tension would impact her whole life and be reflected in her work as well.
Even her first feature film is a perfect example of her maneuvering between two opposite spheres. Três dias sem Deus/Three Days without God (premiere on August 30, 1946 in Lisbon) is a 102-minute film focusing on a young female teacher from the city arriving at a village school who is slowly revealing complicated and traditionalist family structures in this remote and rural area.  The film’s plot and its expressionist aesthetics are partially breaking with religious and moral as well as cinematic conventions of that time whilst still being in alignment with the regime’s ideology on other aspects. Nonetheless, it is impressive that Bárbara Virgínia managed to fund and produce this film because it is not a mere propagandistic one.
Moreover, Três dias sem Deus was the first Portuguese feature film ever made by a woman, who was only 22 years old at the time of production . Even more impressive Bárbara Virgínia was the only and first female director to present a feature film at the first edition of the famous Cannes film festival.
So, why did she quit making films after this success and leave for Brazil? Paula and Luísa Sequeira summed it up neatly:
“The heaviest weight in deciding to emigrate must have certainly been the difficulty of independently financing herself, to which would have been added the growing censorial and financial restrictions […]. The lack of alternatives to this system, the gender barriers in filmmaking, the break with her paternal family, everything combined to overshadow the conditions of her remaining in Portugal. Ironically, she did not find much better conditions in Brazil.”
Additionally, the rejection of one of her projects Anto in 1950 caused Virgínia to question her life and possibilities in Portugal leading to her emigration to Brazil two years later. In Sao Paulo, she worked for the local TV and broadcasting stations, wrote some magazine pieces and books and traveled to Africa before finally settling in Sao Paulo for good. At 40 she got married and decided to abandon the art world and, instead, to open a restaurant called Aqui, Portugal – the name of the 1947 movie she was starring in. Again, we find this mix of independence and artistic longing opposed to submission and conservative attitude that marked Virgínia’s entire life and work.
What we know about Bárbara Virgínia today is based on newspaper articles, a few interviews and her personal documents. Unfortunately, the “family memory notes that, in recent decades, Bárbara Virgínia destroyed a significant portion of the photographs and papers from that time, probably due to a certain bitterness in remembering it.” In terms of her films that means that we are left with a fragmented 22 minutes (of the original 102) of Três dias sem Deus without any sound. Since 2015 – the year of her death - the Prémio Bárbara Virgínia is awarded to outstanding female artists in Portugal and a way to honor Virgínia’s career. If you crave more details about this fascinating women in film history you should check out filmmaker Luísa Sequeira’s 2017 documentary Quem é Bárbara Virgínia?/Who is Bárbara Virgínia? (2017).
 For a more comprehensive plot summary and thorough analysis have a look at Paula and Luísa Sequeira: “Forget Bárbara Virgínia? A forerunner filmmaker between Portugal and Brazil“. Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 32, 2017, pp. 353 – 374. PDF
 Ib. p. 360f
Ib. p. 370
Ib. p. 355
- as director
Virgínia, B. (1946). Aldeia dos rapazes: Orfanato Sta. Isabel de Albarraque. Lisbon: Invicta Filmes. Independente.
Virgínia, B. (1946). Três dias sem Deus. Lisbon: Invicta Filmes Independente.
- as actress or narrator
Fonseca, R. F. da (1945). Neve em Lisboa. Lisbon: Invicta Filmes Independente.
Porfírio, C. (1945). Sonho de Amor. Lisbon: Cinelândia.
De Miranda, A. (1947): Aqui, Portugal
Check out the exhibition about Bárbara Virgínia during the 2018 edition of the Olhares do Mediterrâneo festival.
Find more information and a trailer of the documentary Quem é Bárbara Virgínia?/Who is Bárbara Virgínia? (2017) directed, written and produced by Luísa Sequeira → here
Bárbara Virgínia’s profile on the Cannes website