Horse Money is one of those films that makes more sense after watching than during. Pedro Costa’s latest feature has no conventional narrative to speak of, but follows ghostly presence Ventura (an immigrant from Cape Verde living in Lisbon playing himself) as he wanders – alone or accompanied by mute, white coated doctors – through dark spaces at times resembling abandoned hospital corridors, at other times catacombs or ancient caverns. His hands tremble incessantly, perhaps because of a nervous disorder he may or may not have. Ventura is a man of few words, but his weary expression and shuffling gait speak volumes about the life he has lived.
When Ventura does speak, it is never about the present or future, only the past; indeed, he seems to believe the year is 1975, and he is still nineteen – rather than a retired bricklayer. At several points in the film, Ventura appears to stumble into scenes from his past, placing doubts on the veracity of what we are seeing. Is this all a dream? Taken in this more abstract sense, Horse Money reveals itself to be a powerful commentary on Portuguese history and racial relations told through the surreal imaginings of one of its subjects. All of the actors in the film are of African origin, except for the doctors in the hospital and the soldiers in Ventura’s memories of the 1974-75 ‘Carnation Revolution’, in which the country’s authoritarian government was overthrown. They speak only of suffering: death, disease, mourning, colonial oppression and economic deprivation; homes demolished and livelihoods destroyed.
Like Ventura, their taut, wrinkled faces speak a language of weariness and resignation. In this light, the shots of monuments and statues representing Portugal’s glorious escapades during the ‘Age of Discovery’ take on a darker tone. In one particularly memorable scene, a haunting piece of music – Alto Cutelo by Cape Verdean band Os Tubaroes – accompanies a montage of blacks lingering in dilapidated Lisbon abodes, their bodies and faces static and expressionless. The song speaks of poverty and displacement; of “no more berries”, “roots dried out”, “water, out of man’s reach”, a “husband gone to Lisbon, sold his land” and “exploited, cheated by his white brother”. It longs for a return home, where “I own the land, and the power is mine”. It is the most unambiguous statement of a highly ambiguous film, through which Costa draws attention to Portugal’s failure to integrate its immigrants as equals.
While Horse Money makes no explicit reference to it, perhaps this alienation has something to do with Portugal’s recent political travails. The abandoned, decaying hospital corridors – shot at a skewed angle by cinematographer Leonardo Simões – the eerie scene set in an abandoned workshop, and the references to salaries “unpaid for twenty years” bring to mind the austerity and economic depression that have ravaged Portugal over the past few years. One feels Costa is hinting at a deeper trauma – manifested in Ventura’s trembling hands – inflicted by the uprooting of a race from its land of origin, an idea that sits uncomfortably with contemporary multicultural ideals. Although at times frustrating in its impenetrability, Horse Money is a richly rewarding experience that haunts the mind long after viewing.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka