Horse Money Dir. Pedro Costa

[Cinema Guild; 2015]

Styles: historical allegory, passion play, post-colonial studies
Others: Statues also die, Rite of spring, Winter in America

In Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro) Pedro Costa devises an otherworldly epilogue to his career-defining Fontainhas Trilogy. Adopting an austere mixture of documentary and art-house techniques, Costa chronicled Fontainhas’s life across three movies and two decades. He revisits the Lisbon neighborhood in his most recent work, although the Portuguese government demolished Fontainhas a few years ago in a clean-up initiative — events that Costa himself referenced in his preceding movie Colossal Youth (2006). Unable to physically return to the Lisbon shantytown mostly inhabited by poor Cape Verdean migrants, in his latest film Costa explores the scar that once was Fontainhas. Thus, while his first immersions in the community veered between the observational and a poetic elaboration on reality-bound subjects, in his first feature-length fictional work in nine years Costa approaches his characters and their stories using cinema as a substitute for memory. Sure enough, Pedro Costa’s portrayal of Fontainhas has always possessed an eerie beauty, crafted through long shots and a stupor-stricken rhythm that gave the slum an edge where memories and apparitions could commingle with what was left of the living. Costa goes further down that road in Horse Money, imagining Portugal as a zombie of its own history.

On the surface, Horse Money is a direct continuation of Colossal Youth. We once again meet Ventura, the Cape Verdean immigrant who played the central figure in Costa’s 2006 film, but he is a frail creature now, interned in an asylum, his body and spirit visibly broken. An untrained actor playing a version of himself, in Colossal Youth the Cape Verdean incarnated the connecting thread between a handful of stories making-up for a fairly direct recount of the Carnation Revolution’s aftermath. In Horse Money, Ventura becomes a surprisingly transparent allegory for Portugal’s marginalized, allowing Costa to perform a “delirious dissection of Portuguese history” through the man’s life and experiences. At the very least the ailing Ventura takes the place of Fontainhas, drifting through his memories while he tends his still open wounds. Nevertheless, Ventura is not meant to invoke a messianic figure, but rather that of a ghoul, an undead. He is no saintly character looking for absolution; he is very much among the culprits of the sins that have kept him from finding peace. There is no point in him waiting for a day of reckoning, though he may really have no other choice.

Despite Costa’s reputation for elliptic and non-narrative filmmaking, it is not difficult to provide a synopsis for Horse Money: An old man is chased by the ghosts of his past, tormented by the murder of another man in a knife fight many years back. The man’s grasp of reality is tenuous; he even might have lost his mind because of guilt. He continues to confuse the past and the present, believing it is still March 11 1974 and claiming to be 19 years old despite clearly being closer to seventy. The date he is fixated on is not trivial. On it, Portuguese left-wing military officers unleashed the coup that would bring an end to several decades of dictatorial regimes in the country, the so-called Carnation Revolution. It was also the day Ventura killed Joaquim, later to be captured by the dictatorial-backing faction of the army when he tried to defect their ranks. Ventura is not the only one who has marked those days as life-changing. The left-wing officers who lead the coup were soon joined by a wide segment of the population, workers unions, and students. Merely a teenager, Costa was among those students, enraptured by the fight, convinced he stood on the right side of history. It never occurred to him that there might have been unnamed, collateral victims of that struggle. The real Ventura was one of them, hiding along his colleagues while anarchist students occupied the factory they worked in. It would not be until many years later, looking at photographic records of the upheaval, that Costa would understand the extent of such omission.

Although they were a significant part of Portugal’s would-be proletariat in the 1970s, African migrants were nowhere to be found in those pictures. It is not all that surprising, considering the country still held colonial territories in Africa until shortly after the Carnation Revolution, and that plenty of colonial mechanisms continue to stand in the country to this day. Hence, Ventura’s memory loop is that of a whole collective of people: the poor who gamble their luck on a horse named money and can hardly afford utopias, those who remain oppressed by colonial structures no matter how many revolutions come and go. Of course, Costa is not one to pontificate. The filmic Ventura is never depicted as a victim, and even as an avatar of Portugal’s dispossessed he remains a stubbornly complex and individual character. His detachment from reality notwithstanding, we are told he was one of the soldiers fighting against the uprising. No semblance of romanticism is impressed on his story, not even when he meets the widow of the man he murdered. Costa does not aim for grand statements, instead developing a sophisticated experiment in representation. Shooting in digital video as through the latter part of the Fontainhas Trilogy, he frames each shoot with his usual mastery, although here he engulfs each shot in a swampy darkness, the tissue from which the characters emerge in stark contrast, radiant.

The film’s structure might be its most novel element vis-à-vis the Portuguese director’s oeuvre. Mirroring the fragmented nature of Ventura’s drift, the scenes unfold at a brisk pace — at least considering Costa’s often languorous past work. Each moment Ventura relives is presented as a self-contained episode. Certainly, slow-moving, ominous shots are still there, channeling metaphors for oppression, as found in ghostly echoes, half-demolished structures, endless corridors, oceans of rubble, abandoned factories, stairways that lead nowhere… Of course, the most perverse layers of subjugation are not explicit, though Costa takes care to keep them present without coming across as overbearing. Nevertheless, this still is the Portuguese’s most “interventionist” script in two decades, acquiring an allegoric tone where a vérité veneer would have been expected. That might be a consequence of the project’s peculiar genesis, as it was supposed to be a collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron. The American poet was meant to star, co-write the script, and develop a couple of musical sequences, but his death cancelled the plans. Horse Money is not the oratorio Scott-Heron envisioned, albeit it keeps a certain free-associative, self-referential nature predominant in raps. If anything, Costa seems to have inherited from the American the capacity to distill the past trough the sieve of the present. Thus, if Colossal Youth was a requiem for Fontainhas, Horse Money might be the song that keeps it alive.

Manoel de Oliveira, perhaps the most famous Portuguese filmmaker of all time, used to say that it was in his 1963 movie Rite of Spring that he understood how to use cinema to represent reality instead of just imitating it. The film was a collaboration with fellow Portuguese director António Reis, and also an allegoric artifact where different strands of narrative collided in a politically-charged critique of Portugal. Costa was a student of Reis, and it is tempting to find some symmetry between Horse Money and Rite of Spring. Here Costa breaks cinematic memory into his toolkit, using it not to preserve Fontainhas as a memento, but to cast Portugal’s history in its image, to reflect it off the specters the slum has left behind. The main downside to this is the necessity of a solid knowledge of Costa’s work and, most importantly, Portugal’s history, to crack what would otherwise come across as opaque characters and illusive plotting. Such potentially hermetic quality is a risk Costa has decided to take, and one that pays off greatly in Horse Money, heralding a new phase in Costa’s work in the same way Bones (1997) did by introducing him to Fontainhas.

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