Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Ventura, in a scene from Pedro Costa's  Horse Money  {Photo: CINEMA GUILD}

Ventura, in a scene from Pedro Costa's Horse Money {Photo: CINEMA GUILD}

Horse Money screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 20 and Monday March 23. For additional ticketing information, please click here


Horse Money, my first encounter with Pedro Costa, is not quite like any film I have seen. Passages of the film are extraordinary, speaking to a film language that I at least have some semblance of literacy in. The film, from what I could surmise, involves a man’s permanent stasis of grief and his attempts to absolve, or at the very least make sense, of it.. Costa does not spell this out directly – rather it’s in the film’s reticence that you extract its most comprehensible meaning. Other times, however, the film escapes my grasp, becoming something alien and impenetrable. But those who are willing to get lost within the dingy labyrinths that compose Horse Money, those who can sacrifice narrative cogency for something more fluid and indescribable, are rewarded with a picture of immense empathetic power. 

A series of still photographs of immigrants coming to the United States opens the film. This concludes with the portrait of a black man, an image that fits within the visual context of the previous photographs. So it comes with considerable shock that the image begins to slowly pan. What’s provoked in this opening montage is a concise thematic thesis where Costa lays out what can be described as an immigrant’s fable within uncharted terrain. Yet is it Costa, the audience, or the man named Ventura who roams the picture that is doing the exploring? Is it all three? The picture is sustained through a series of extended shots, conveying a desolate sense of loss. Certain sequences resonate over others, such as an early scene where Ventura plods down a corridor – a startling image that’s equal parts intense and terrifying, as if plunging into an abyss. Another sequence, a conversation between Ventura and a presumed colleague and friend, involves such visually intricate and elegantly composed lighting – a crack at the door serves to illuminate a straight line on wood flooring, only to see it brighten the faces of the two men in conversation – that one loses sight of the conversation and embraces the poignancy of the image.

To be knowledgeable of Lisbon’s Fontainhas District, the purgatory that serves as the backdrop for Horse Money, or Costa’s previous work in general, isn’t compulsory, insofar that I was capable of jibing with the picture’s esoteric tendencies quickly. Undoubtedly it would enrich the historical value of the film as a text, but Horse Money is a film that punctures for its study of trauma and loss. In the film’s major final segment we see Ventura contend with the grief of committing a murder during the Portuguese revolution by literally speaking to a living statue of a soldier while locked in an elevator. Lips unmoving, the soldier statue/ghost verbalizes the guilt that haunts Ventura day by day. The elevator ride ends. The result of internalization is amplified to a violent degree, where the irregular movement of Ventura’s hand has spread throughout his psyche. To suggest that Ventura is absolved of guilt would be a mistake – the lingering image of knives, presumably a knife used by Ventura to commit a murder, follows the man through one lifetime and into the next.

Hardly the feel-good film of the year, Horse Money is a harrowing film, even once your capacities for empathy become in sync with the picture's content. It's not a film I can recommend without a series of footnotes and asterisks, but it's an absolute must for cinephiles looking for an introduction to the work of Pedro Costa.