TIFF 2014: Pedro Costa’s ‘Horse Money’

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horseCosta’s cinema is dense and challenging, he does not allow the audience to coast along through either narrative or character charm. Horse Money in particular has a rather elusive structure, seemingly drifting through different time periods and different levels of consciousness as it tackles the failed promise of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution. At the centre of the story is Ventura, the Cape Verdean lead from Colossal Youth, an ageing man faced with a society that has neglected to include him.

Shot in stunning digital, the film embraces a painterly style evoking the chiaroscuro works of Caravaggio. The film often takes on the nuance of a living painting, as Costa often embraces ‘Tableaux vivant’ aesthetics, particular in montage sequences. The darkness that surrounds the character’s is almost rapturous, an enveloping cloud that threatens to gobble them whole. There is something perverse about the meeting of world’s in this film, the contrast between the ancient and crumbling walls of older sections of Lisbon with white and modern facilities is jarring. It is as if the past were shameful, a crushing weight on the present. In North America we are often faced with the cultural problem of erasure, a need to forget or transform the past; whereas in Europe they cannot seem to escape the actions of their ancestors.

This becomes particularly difficult for immigrant populations that are at best ignored by the people who have long called this land home. Can revolution ever truly work in such an ancient land? The question is particularly pertinent to society’s outcasts, the immigrants, the impoverished and the iconoclasts. These are the people Pedro Costa is most interested in investigating and his films seem loaded with social anger. This matches the denseness of the film’s trajectory, as his style forces the audience to pay attention, as they attempt to unravel meaning and intention. Costa uses elements of slow cinema, music and poetic realism in order to grab our attention. As always, Pedro Costa’s style blends the line between reality and fiction: truth matters more than facts in Pedro Costa’s work. Its a beautiful object that has ugly things to say about who we are. Horse Money is a film that almost demands a second viewing and likely works best in context of Costa’s other work.

One of my favourite things about festivals is the ability to work and learn from incredible people. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by incredibly talented writers and filmmakers, who only richen my experiences. Festivals don’t have to be an isolated experience and I’d usually rather skip a film or two in favor of great conversation. In this particular case, I had a really incredible talk about Pedro Costa’s Horse Money with my friend and colleague Hugo Alves.

As Hugo actually lived and grew up in Portugal near Lisbon, he had some incredible insights into the detailing of Costa’s work. He was preparing an interview with Costa the next day and was looking for some direction in questioning. It was already clear that he would ask Costa about the state of the Portuguese film industry, but where to start with Horse Money? Through our discussion I learned about the film’s use of music and the importance of traditional song to the Cape Verdians in particular. Music is literally the bridge between the Cape Verdian immigrants and the Portuguese people. The film features some music from the Morna style, which was made especially famous by singer Cesária Évora. The music becomes a more powerful tool of communication between worlds than traditional language, however it has not always been such an easy relationship. For the Cape Verdians, music has always been closely tied to dance and the Portuguese catholic authorities immediately objected to what they perceived as overtly sexual movements. They banned the dances, and as a result the music was divorced from the body.

This only added more resonance to the sequence in Pedro Costa’s film, where he creates a montage of various Cape Verdians living in the hand-made Fontainhas. Structured around a powerful Morna song, the scene features numerous ‘tableaux vivants’ of Cape Verdians immobile within their decrepit environment. The scene is loaded with sadness and oppression, the people feel like outcasts – incomplete. It is an incredible moment that we come to understand the Ventura is not just one man, but a part of a larger group, and a specific generation of immigrants left at the wayside by the revolution. We understand the significance of dates, names and papers… they become proof these people existed. This only makes the struggles of receiving a visa all the more tragic, it is far more than their passage into the country but an embodiment of their existence.