It is both odd, and entirely a propos, that Horse Money will be the first of Pedro Costa's fiction films to receive a proper release. (His first distributed film in the U.S. was his Jeanne Balibar documentary, Ne change rien.) It makes sense, of course, given than Costa has gone from being a virtual unknown in North America to being someone less of an unknown, thanks to the Criterion Collection's "Letters From Fontainhas" DVD collection. Something of a first for Criterion (unless we count straight-up avant-gardists like Brakhage and Frampton), these discs were not deluxe reissues or follow-ups to commercial releases. In essence, these discs were the American releases of Costa's three Fontainhas features: Bones, In Vanda's Room, and Colossal Youth. Not only did the collection give curious cinephiles access to the work of one of the major new film artists of the century; it provided a mini-retrospective, allowing viewers to see Costa's work in a broader perspective.
In light of this, Horse Money arrived at festivals in 2014, and in theatres in 2015, with some substantial groundwork beneath it, which can only help with a filmmaker as challenging as Costa. Having said this, I think that the "difficult" or abstruse" character of these films has been overstated, and that with each new work Costa has become a broader-ranging, more accessible artist. No, he will never be Spielberg, or even Apichatpong.
But the Fontainhas films have become progressively forward and discursive about certain aspects of their intellectual make-up (especially the colonial histories between Portugal and Cape Verde) that were largely submerged in Bones, and wholly implicit in In Vanda's Room. These social and political questions, particularly as they intersect with race, rebellion, and personal trauma, emerged in fairly evident ways in Colossal Youth, although some viewers may still have been confused (or merely put off) by Costa's choice to expound these issues through poetry and incantation rather than conventional dialogue.
Horse Money is a fourth Fontainhas film of sorts, or more properly speaking a post-Fontainhas film, or a coda to the trilogy. The titular housing block in Lisbon, barely standing in Colossal Youth, is finally gone. In that film, Ventura, the central figure, was a would-be patriarch trying to keep his Fontainhas "family" together in the midst of demolition and shifting alliances. In Horse Money, he is isolated and infirm, in hospital for an undefined illness and experiencing his compatriots, past and present, as flashes of a floating continuum of memory.
If the broader historical and political meanings of Cape Verdean exile and insurgency were dispersed across multiple subjects in the previous films, in Horse Money, Costa allows Ventura to serve as the soft tablet upon and across which this memory is written. His troubled mind becomes a cultural palimpsest, deeply individualized and at the same time emblematic of something broader than his own private experience.
Costa tends to depict this throughout Horse Money in a manner that is both abstract, and suprisingly in keeping with certain modes and schemas of the European and Asian art film tradition. That is, Costa deploys clear methods of framing and mise en scène in order to delineate shifts between Ventura's consciousness and a semi-objective outside world. In fact, Costa does this quite masterfully throughout, with match cuts and rhythmic symmetries that allow us to perceive the exact same spaces and scenes through Ventura's eyes (darker, organic, cavernous) and through "normal" vision (lighter, wider angles, blandly institutional).
Much of Horse Money consists of Ventura navigating a hospital stay, and his depressive, somnambulistic behavior connotes several things at once: traumatized memory, historical burden, as well as the creep of disorientation or dementia. But above all, Costa stages Ventura's performance and "presence" as being fundamentally out of joint with contemporary lived time. This is a man who hovers between present and past, serving as an avatar for events and experiences that (as per Faulkner's infamous dictum) are not even past.
So, when old friends visit Ventura's bedside, he recalls the manner in which each of them met their death. They are ghosts, but no less palpable than everything that surrounds Ventura. One of them holds the rail of his bedframe, making contact with the physical world in a quite pointed manner. Similarly, when Ventura leaves the hospital and wanders through an old factory where he used to work, its utter disarray is set in contrast with Ventura's sense that he could simply pick up his labor where he left off. He heads upstairs to the main office to find a co-worker who has been waiting for his paycheck for who-knows-how-long, and a woman bitterly demanding her dead husband's pension.
The climax of Horse Money, and certainly one of the most bizarre and befuddling sequences Costa has ever filmed, takes place in a hospital elevator. Ventura comes face to face with an MFA rebel soldier (Antonio Santos) from the 1974 Carnation Revolution. "Face to face" is to put it a little incorrectly, however, since this man is a "living statue," unmoving and covered in gray-metallic greasepaint. His disquisition on the battles, the losses and the anguish that Ventura has experienced, serves not to lay the themes of the film bare. Rather, the confrontation between Ventura and the "soldier" heightens the secondary problematic of Horse Money. Is Ventura trapped in a kind of death-dream? And by extension, are all the various times and spaces that traverse him -- Cape Verdean cultural memory, the colonial resistance, the Portuguese 20th century, the dignity of labor, to say nothing of the fading concepts of brotherhood and poetic reverie -- all mere memories fading into oblivion?
In a key visual image of the film, Ventura stands in a village square as a tank rolls up to him, threatening to annihilate him as his stands nearly naked in his pajamas. He is small and vulnerable. But, as is customary in Costa's cinematic grammar, he is also sharply illuminated, a figure of stark dignity in a dense inky night of the film's frame. Costa brings Ventura into being, even as he threatens to slip away from us and from historical time.