In “Horse Money,” nothing and everything makes sense. It’s a kind of ghost story, a foggy memory, a series of vignettes where the past, present, and future all converge. The latest in director Pedro Costa’s series of films exploring the plight of disenfranchised Cape Verdeans in the Fontainhas of Portugal, the story revisits a version of the character Ventura, who played a major role in 2006’s “Colossal Youth”.
Costa opens with black and white photos of turn-of-the-century New York City tenement dwellers by famous photographer Jacob Riis, which echo a later musical vignette of still camera shots, dignified and unpitying portraits of Cape Verdeans living in the long since demolished shacks of the Fontainhas, set to a folk song lamenting the wearisome realities of living in the slum.
The main setting, though, is a kind of purgatory. We follow the aged Ventura through an endless stream of darkened corridors, empty streets, and prison-like hospital rooms. It’s unclear where exactly he is, or what exactly he’s being treated for – the nervous twitch that leaves his hands trembling uncontrollably? A kind of dementia that compels him to aimlessly walk the halls at night? “I’ve known a bunch of hospitals,” Ventura tells a faceless doctor during an examination, and the implication is that we are watching him navigate all those places and no place at all, a place where he must atone for some past sin, never fully defined, before he can move on.
Costa’s strength as a filmmaker has always been in his collaborative, cinema verite approach to storytelling. His actors speak with their own whispered dialogue, cryptic and poetic. Ventura, as lead actor, is difficult to watch but almost impossible not to – his broken body, often on full display in tight closeup, is the canvas on which Costa paints a portrait of a life spent mostly working, a life only half-lived.
Ventura interacts with several ghosts from his past – the widow of a man he may or may not have killed, and the man himself, who pays him eerie visits in the night urging him to “Confess!” One corridor may lead Ventura into a dark forest at night where he’s hunted by machine-clad militiamen, another gloomy hall may lead him into an abandoned factory where he meets a nephew who says he’s been waiting twenty years for a paycheck.
This is a maze of a film, both visually and narratively, but rather than disconcerting, the meandering mystery of Ventura’s story and his interactions with the people of his past are captivating. The crescendo of the film is in an elevator sequence that according to Costa took four months to shoot – Ventura is trapped beside a motionless, grease covered soldier as a chorus of people he’s loved and betrayed speak to him from somewhere just off screen.
It’s impossible to do justice to the power of Costa’s and his small crew’s work in a single review, in the film’s nuanced ability to so beautifully convey the effects of poverty, racism, colonization on not only the community but the individual. Right to its final beautiful shot, the inscrutable nature of this story is strangely calming, and deeply moving.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.