Given the critical praise it has received – Horse Money came third in Sight & Sound‘s Best Films of 2014 list – I was intrigued by the prospect of watching Pedro Costa’s latest film, but went into it with more than a little wariness; reviews and articles I had read beforehand spoke of its difficult nature, as well as the need to ‘surrender to its images’ rather than making any attempt to understand what was actually happening, which is of course shorthand for saying ‘give it up, dumbo, and reach for the Jason Statham box set you hide behind all the arthouse stuff’. Actually, despite being far too lost and confused to fully grasp what was happening during the film, I did latch onto the fact that it’s an elegy of sorts, concentrating on one character called Ventura (a semi-fictional version of a real man named Ventura), who is possibly a symbol of the Lisbon slum where Costa has set his previous films (Fontainhas, now demolished, once home to the city’s Cape Verdean community). In Horse Money Ventura, who also appeared as a slightly different character in Costa’s Colossal Youth as well as some of the director’s short films, appears to be ill (or dying, or already dead), and for much of the running time he’s holed up in a hosptial or asylum of some sort; this place – like most of the locations and settings here – is grimy and dimly lit, though throughout the actors are placed within bright patches of natural and artificial light, ensuring stark contrasts with the darkness. Friends and family come to visit and Ventura interacts briefly with the staff, but this sliver of realism gradually gives way to a series of dream-like sequences in which Ventura and others reflect upon their past lives in Cape Verde and Portugal. Perhaps Ventura is in the afterlife already, or – given that much of the final sequence takes place in a lift before he appears to leave the hospital – he is on the way there. A woman named Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) appears regularly to stoke Ventura’s recollections of the past and, somewhat cryptically, to whisper about the journey ahead.
If you can get over the feeling of being all at sea – which I couldn’t, unfortunately – there’s clearly plenty to admire here: the crisply-rendered images are impressive and often beautiful, the film has a carefully-constructed atmosphere of quiet contemplation, while the sheer weirdness of some sequences makes for a sporadically-arresting experience: at one point Ventura walks along a street with a tank at his rear, while the aforementioned elevator scene includes a statue of a soldier in the corner (and just to confuse matters it seems as though Ventura has a conversation with this soldier within his own head, unless I’m wildly mistaken, and I freely admit I may well be). In amongst all of this there are segments that possibly serve to highlight the lives of those who lived in Fontainhas: some scenes show people wandering around or trying to continue their work in wrecked business premises; additionally, the film opens with a series of portraits of poor people in New York tenements by the social documentary photographer Jacob Riis, and Costa includes his own response to those mid-way through the film with a series of beautifully-shot living portraits set to music (I’m assuming that the people who feature are all former residents of the Lisbon slum). But how to interpret it all, and how far does one go in terms of trying to balance respect for uncompromising artistic endeavour with the general frustration experienced when baffled by the work the artist presents? Ultimately I suppose it’s good to take on challenging, unusual material from time to time, but this is an occasion where I just have to hold my hands up and admit that most of the film flew over my head. As a result I simply didn’t enjoy watching Horse Money all that much. Perhaps more context or historical information about Cape Verde’s independence after centuries of Portuguese rule or Portugal’s own Carnation Revolution would have helped. Perhaps I should have started with earlier Costa films, or at least watched Colossal Youth. Perhaps a second viewing would make things clearer (though I very much doubt it). Perhaps I should have relaxed and gone with it rather than spending my time trying to understand more about the migrant experience. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Directed by: Pedro Costa.
Written by: Pedro Costa.
Starring: Ventura, Vitalina Varela, Tito Furtado, Benvindo Tavares.
Cinematography: Leonardo Simões.
Editing: João Dias.
Music: Os Tubarões.
Running Time: 105 minutes.