After a lengthy absence from the slums of Fontainhas, the physical setting of his trilogy on impoverished marginalized humanity personified by Cape Verdean immigrants —”Ossos” (1997), “In Vanda’s Room” (2000), “Colossal Youth” (2006)— Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa returns with “Horse Money.” We re-connect with Ventura, the window to the souls of ‘youth,’ who appears physically and psychologically drained since we’ve last seen him, resting peacefully on Vanda‘s bed. The familiarity of the setting, Ventura’s screen presence as magnanimous and magnetic as ever, and Costa’s pictorial mise-en-scène, are stalwart reminders of the same universe. But something is undeniably, remarkably and a touch frighteningly different in the air. “Horse Money” is situated on some metaphysical plane, twice removed from the ramshackle physicality of its three predecessors, but through Ventura, newcomer Vitalina, a stupendous musical montage and a meeting in an elevator, still spiritually entwined with the same material world. One can’t be too sure if much of what transpires takes place in the past, present, projection, lucid dream or vivid nightmare, but its therapeutic qualities cannot be denied. Tremendously evocative and inherently enchanting, “Horse Money” is one of the year’s most profound films and an essential step forward for both Ventura the Cape Verdean, and Pedro Costa the artist.
For a film so utterly unconcerned with conventional narrative, we’ll try not to be pedantic in terms of plot. The first images of “Horse Money” are half a dozen photographs circa early 1900s New York, taken by Jacob Riis, another artist very much concerned with exposing impoverishment and class disparity through image. After this soundless and nostalgic prologue, we see Ventura dragged through a hallway down toward what is only alluded to as a hospital but eerily resembles a jail cell. Constantly trembling as a side effect of the pills he is taking for his “nervous disease,” Ventura is visited by friends and relatives. He explains in voiceover the sufferings of these people, usually resulting from or causing some physical ailment (epilepsy, post traumatic stress, etc.), and poetically abridges the collective sentiment as a consequence of “the mould in the walls.” Questioned by a doctor, it’s clear that Ventura’s mind is frozen at a crucial moment in his past: March 11, 1975, when he was 19 years old and when his sliced-open head needed 93 stitches. At night, he is visited by a man in a red shirt who softly says “confess.”
The film makes a clear shift once Ventura meets Vitalina, a woman who spends most of the little money she has for a plane ticket to Lisbon, only to arrive three days late for her husband’s funeral. Her presence, whispering speech pattern, glazed look of vanished intent, and uncanny fondling of jewellery create a spectral aura floating in the present of a woman grounded in the past. Her reading of her husband’s death certificate, followed by her own birth certificate, remains the picture’s loudest heartbeat. “Horse Money” continues to follow Ventura in this ethereal way, as he visits with locals and relatives, finally stopping all time and confining all space in an elevator, where he visits (or is visited by?) an apparition of a “freedom trooper,” whom one can only assume is a soldier of The Carnation Revolution, the 1974 coup that resulted in Cape Verde’s independence from Portugal.
Whether this collage of scenes, with their own intermission in the form of a montage of Cape Verdean residents choreographed with the melancholic harmony of Os Tubarões’ “Alto Cutelo,” are meant to sum up all the parts of “Horse Money,” it’s certainly difficult to tell after only one viewing. This is of course the allure (and for some, the problem) with Costa’s work; he doesn’t make it easy. Neither with the viewing experience, his Bresson-ian method of working with non-actors who often appear wooden in delivery and his tilted camera rarely cutting or moving, nor with the abundance of themes and open-ended avenues of interpretation. As someone who has reinvigorated the art of docufiction in his own quiet, minimal way, Costa’s films are meticulous in their representation of the real, which comes into a bit of a tussle with the abstract nature of “Horse Money.” It’s poetic surrealism that makes Roy Andersson as accessible as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in comparison. One moment’s thought on the foremost artistic influences on “Horse Money” will direct you where you need to go if you’re interested in exploring the obfuscated nature of Costa’s cinema: poet Charles Baudelaire, playwright Bertolt Brecht, filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Fritz Lang, and Jean-Luc Godard. All of the preceding were variously possessed by ideas of construction and manipulation of reality and nature of time through their respective weapons of artistic choice. In other words, if you’re looking to digest something easily chewable, pick another dish, because this horse isn’t for you.
Even when certain segments of “Horse Money” feel like they’re losing too much focus (such as the interactions between the mysterious man in red and Ventura), or fall prey to excessively pronounced theatricality (the elevator sequence), the film will move and intellectually challenge those who have acquired the taste for Pedro Costa. Still, it may be the director’s least accessible film, because the viewer contends with more intangibles than ever before, starting with the title. At one point, Ventura asks about his horse, called Money, and is told that vultures tore him to pieces. Is this our invitation to tear his film into pieces, or is it Costa’s fear of the same? Did Ventura really have a horse called Money, and Costa simply likes the intonation of the two words together (as he’s said in interviews)? Is it emphasising the paradoxical unity of nature (horse) and artificial man-made construct (money), that’s been the cause of so much of the world’s sickness (one of the most highlighted motifs in the film)? As we ponder the answers, we remember the soldier in that travelling box of metal, who tells Ventura, “You are, and you have nothing.” “Horse Money” is, and it has so much. [B+]