A phantasmagorical vision of psychological purgatory, Horse Money (Cavalo dinheiro) will enrapture some while leaving others dangling in frustrated limbo. Only the sixth fictional feature from Portuguese writer-director Pedro Costa in the quarter-century since his 1989 debut Blood, its austere opacity will convert few to the Costa cause. But it will undoubtedly confirm his exalted status among cinephiles and cineastes as an inspirationally uncompromising and uncompromised auteur.
Winner of Best Director at Locarno and confirmed for North American festival play at Toronto and New York, this tenebrous meander around one man’s troubled psyche will likely emulate its predecessor Colossal Youth (2006) by scoring limited theatrical exposure in receptive territories off the back of what is, by this stage regarding Costa, near-automatic critical adulation.
With Colossal Youth, Costa completed an intimately epic trio of works (Bones, In Vanda’s Room) set in Lisbon’s poverty-stricken Fontainhas district. This shanty-like area was home to many citizens who had moved to the mainland from Cabo Verde — a small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean which were a Portuguese colony until 1975.
Both Colossal Youth and Horse Money pivot around the tall, commandingly grave figure of “Ventura”, the saturnine non-pro who also prominently figured in Costa’s interim shorts Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters (2007); Our Man and Sweet Exorcism (2012). The latter, made for the portmanteau film Historic Centre, is now revealed as having been in effect a ‘taster’ for the Lisboeta’s latest opus.
And the more the viewer is aware of his previous output, not to mention the mid-1970s history of Cabo Verde and Portugal, the more they’ll likely be able to appreciate and understand what’s going on in this example of what can safely be termed “post-narrative” cinema.
Defying easy synopsis, Horse Money is a stately, sometimes nightmarish exploration of internal terrain. Frail in both mind and body, Ventura is seemingly the inmate of a cavernous, antiquated mental asylum: “I know many hospitals,” he remarks, and it soon becomes apparent that the institution in which he’s resident is a composite of multiple environments from his past.
As he wanders endless dilapidated corridors, he encounters various individuals who may be imaginary or real, most notably a permanently whispering, grief-benumbed lady — Vitalina Varela — whose tragic family history is closely interwoven with that of her native islands. We deduce that Ventura has, in his time, taken part in violent revolutionary activities; but is he now too frail to participate in the struggles of a new century?
The answer comes in the very last seconds of a film whose bravura, silent opening moments unambiguously reveal the guiding hand of a bold, audacious maestro: a series of stills taken by Danish-American Jacob Riis provide glimpses of the New York slums of the 1890s. And while the film’s narrative development is opaque to the point of obscurantism, it frequently bedazzles thanks to masterclass-level cinematography co-credited to Costa and Leonardo Simoes. Especially effective are its 3D-like vistas of corridors as sinister as anything from David Lynch or Costa’s beloved Jacques Tourneur.
At its best the film conjures a striking, enveloping universe of light and shade — mainly shade — whose many inky voids become rabbit-holes into which we’re invited to disappear. At its worst, including the protracted, climactic sequence set in a stalled elevator involving a weird dialogue-of-sorts between Ventura and a human-statue soldier, the picture grinds to a halt as Costa retreats into an arid closed-circuit of repetition, hallucination and gnomic allegory.
But even within the context of such unevenness, Costa’s commitment to chronicling and implicitly dignifying the sufferings of the oppressed and the exploited provides Horse Money with a solid core. And a midpoint interlude, cutting from room to room and senior citizen to senior citizen to the accompaniment of a moving Cabo Verdean musical number, ranks among the most exhilarating moments of Costa’s career to date.
There is certainly no shortage of gloom, desolation and horror here — the title refers to an ill-fated equine named Money, formerly owned by Ventura back in Cabo Verde (“vultures tore him to pieces”). In the closing moments, however, Costa finally allows slender but vigorous shafts of optimism to penetrate the stygian depths — quietly celebrating comradeship, solidarity, resistance: the riches of the poor.