Portuguese director Pedro Costa has already exhumed the demons of wartime trauma and troubled class issues with several films, most recently with "Colossal Youth." That 2006 feature was the third set in the squalid Lisbon neighborhood Fontainhas and focused on the plights of Cape Verdean immigrants haunted by the country's Carnation Revolution. "Colossal Youth," which starred real-life immigrant Ventura as he drifted around town and contemplated his troubled existence, followed "Ossos" and "Vanda's Room" to form an unofficial trilogy of experimental narratives set in Fontainhas and exploring its troubled state.
Now the trilogy has become a fascinating quartet, with "Horse Money," another darkly poetic examination of Fontainhas' impoverished residents through the lens of Ventura's quiet, soul-searching wanderings. A rich, almost impermeably strange example of Costa's slow-burn approach to abstract storytelling, "Horse Money" is more subdued and cryptic than its predecessors, to the point where it might be more appropriately described as a cinematic tone poem.
Costa immediately links historical memory with an uncertain present in an opening montage of black-and-white stills. But these images unfold in silence, immediately establishing the distancing effect as the narrative grows increasingly more complex. From there, we see the aged, feeble Ventura emerging from the chiaroscuro depths of a cramped basement, shaking from nerve damage caused by the mold in his walls. In the first act, when Ventura goes to see a doctor, Costa's camera quietly watches his subject as the broken man curls up and struggles to stabilize his tremors, his vacant gaze suggested his mind is elsewhere. In short order, Costa takes us there, as the remainder of "Horse Money" seemingly unfolds within the confines of its troubled protagonist's head.
The ensuing story takes place through fragments of vivid encounters. In a whispered tone, Ventura's long-lost wife comes back to address him; later, we witness a dramatic showdown against governmental forces in the woods, and the even more shocking image of the character wandering the shadowy streets in his underwear while being trailed by a tank. The zombie-like quality of Ventura's gaze and he roams the empty streets and returns to his old factory has a sustained eeriness that takes "Horse Money" into the realm of expressionistic horror. This is no surprise, given the director's history of paying tribute to Val Lewton movies, which magnify the process of generating atmospheric dread. Yet despite the dreary framework, "Horse Money" is also suffused with life, as Ventura encounters old family and friends, in more than one occasion singing songs from their past.
The music pierces the disquieting tableaux. Costa includes one extended number set to a montage of Fontainhas residents sitting among their tattered factory settings, as the lyrics comment on their situation with more sophistication than their wandering dialogue ("another day in the dark/my conscience and me") — elaborating on their willingness to accept the world rather than remaining boxed in by the traumas that came before.
While lengthy exchanges are tough to endure, around the corner of each challenging sequence lies another remarkable payoff. Just as Ventura is tethered to the memories that preceded him, "Horse Money" casts a spell that's impossible to shake.
Each new scene ventures into surprising territory, right down to a lengthy climax set in the confines of an elevator. Exclusively performed as an internal monologue between Ventura and a full-size toy soldier seemingly meant to represent a fallen comrade, the heavy exchange is a bold gamble that ultimately pays off: Their philosophical showdown, in which the men agree that "the day will come when we will accept our suffering," points to the slightest possibility of a better tomorrow. Beneath Ventura's solemn gaze lies a commitment to continue wrestling with the bleak events bearing down on his consciousness, not unlike Costa's own recurring focus as a filmmaker.
"Horse Money" opens in New York this week ahead of a national expansion.