Written and directed by Pedro Costa
Horse Money is an elusive entity, a picture of eerie dreamscapes and squalid urban degradation devoid of earthly logic. Our unknowing guide is a retired brick layer named Ventura, acting as a cipher for the displaced souls of the Cape Verdean immigrants, consorting us through a saprogenic world. Director Pedro Costa crafts a hallucinatory, soul-searching labyrinth out of the squalor and grime of the Lisbon slums, known to locals as Fontainhas. It’s almost soporific in its unending calmness, but it (mostly) avoids pretensions. Ventura drifts in a solipsistic daze through various scenes of displaced landscape and artifice. He does various non-activities with unvarying detachment: he meets his estranged ex-wife, and tries to make a call on a broken phone, and uses a urinal in a derelict bathroom, and visits a doctor. Each event is visually striking, yet completely uneventful (though a door does slam at one point). The lighting is hard and Costa works often in steep contrasts; Ventura moves in and out of shadows, disappearing and reappearing like the motif from a dream.
Sprawling and claustrophobic, confused and confident, Costa’s experimental feature is a self-contradicting ouroboros, coming back to the same aesthetic ideas again and again. Every time you think you have it pinned down, it writhes out of your grasp again. As with his previous films, which are available on Criterion, Horse Money defies easy understanding, and thus doesn’t lend itself to simple evaluation. (It’s times like this when I despise the sliding scale system.) It wants, and needs, to be discussed, pondered, allowed to gestate. It’s a tough sit, with its pervasive whispers and deathly voids of silence, all those long takes and the torpid pace.
There are long periods of conciliatory pause, during which characters speak in airy, hushed enigmas. We’re given slivers of anecdotes, which, for those who don’t speak Spanish, act more as aural mood enhancers, while the dialog is transcribed on the screen. Ventura encounters an unflinchingly still soldier during an inexplicably long elevator ride. Ventura sings a sad song; the soldier, his lips sealed, speaks to Ventura in omnipresent riddles. Every time the camera jumps from Ventura and back, the soldier is in a new position — his rifle raised, his hands raised, his face untouched by emotion. We don’t understand, but neither does Ventura. We’re as lost as he.
The camera is mostly static throughout the film, but its visual scope is stunningly wide. Shooting in the confining 4:3 aspect ratio, Costa somehow gets the world to bend and warp to fit his veronal needs, instead of the other way around. Whereas the recent, beautiful Ida uses the ratio to depict captivity and constraint, Horse Money makes the boxy borders feel almost natural, pruned of the distraction of a wide aspect.
Ventura seems stricken with tedium vitae, his face caught in shards of light, appearing like a spill on a black canvas. Halls and stairwells appear endless in HD, and years of leaves wash across the floor in waves. Costa and co. place Ventura in a cavernous realm of crypts and corridors, where the ethereal is rendered corporeal.
You can very easily doze off during one of the film’s sustained moments of serenity. But if you can fight off those encroaching zzzz’s, you’ll experience a film of profound singularity. Horse Money appeals to esoteric tastes, and it leaves a veracious impression, a breath of beauty as impermanent and illusory as a fading dream.
– Greg Cwik