Having the stalwart appearance of being cut from stone as much as being figures traced in the light, the subjects of Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014; screening Thurs., August 20th at 8 p.m. only), the Colossal Youth auteur’s first “fiction” film in nearly a decade, occupy a world that is constructed from flights of remembrance, from an archive of private memories that stretches back to the Portuguese revolution of 1975. As with 2006’s epic Colossal Youth, the third in the director’s so-called ‘Fountainhas’ trilogy–which Horse Money has now made a tetralogy, at least in spirit–Costa’s film centers on Ventura (the name of both the actor and the character), a Cape Verdean immigrant who, in his advancing age, suffers from a near constant tremor. (For a film that is so static in both its disposition of figures and its compositions, Ventura’s twitching is the film’s most consistent source of movement.) As Costa’s picture progresses, thoughts, places and people from Ventura’s past–beginning again with the traumatic events of March 11, 1975–crash the narrative’s present-day thread, creating a seamless patchwork of past and present, of presumably disconnected geographies, from prison and hospital to abandoned factory and elevator (in the film’s most purely surreal set-piece), that finally exist within Ventura’s stream of consciousness (drawn, it should be added in a measure of the film’s collaboration between the aforesaid fiction and non-fiction, from the actor’s own past experiences).
All of this is to say that Horse Money forges a different relationship with the past than is typical for most films. In Costa’s work, it is not simply that one remembers or that we, as viewers, are transported to a different time through use, say of the flashback. Rather, in the person of Ventura, we watch as someone, quite literally, lives with his past, in an indistinct blend of past and present that again has more to do with memory, the way we experience life mentality, than it does the physical experience of the present. In this sense, Horse Money responds to a fundamental challenge posed by a medium, which is, at its basis, composed of fragments of the external world: namely, how to represent the act of remembering and, importantly in the case of Ventura specifically, the experience of aging–an experience, it might be said, when the weight of the past comes to overwhelm an engagement with the present.
Though Horse Money is fundamentally a film of interiority, of the mind, this is not to suggest that it does not also manage to concern itself with the social and the political. Indeed, before we first see Ventura, in one of the only camera movements of the film–Costa’s camera pans from an oil portrait of a black sitter to Ventura, as if the latter has come to life out of the canvas–Horse Money introduces a series of turn-of-the-twentieth-century portraits from Jacob Riis, the Danish-American social reformer and photographer who memorably captured the dirt-poor immigrant denizens of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In thus beginning with this visual catalog, and in the later musical montage that introduces the many residents of the Lisbon slum, Costa confirms his own social chronicler’s impulse, not simply within Horse Money, but indeed for the entirety of his ‘Fountainhas’ project. And it is a film that catalogs experience, that attests, for instance, to the centrality of the written document for the immigrant, as we see with the recently widowed Vitalina Varela’s appearance following her long-absent husband’s death.
The Riis photos, of course, also capture something essential to the experience of seeing Horse Money: namely, that the way the film communicates is closer to the visual arts, to photography, the canvas that immediately follows, the works of sculpture that punctuate the narrative, and even to the architecture that provides such a memorable, if fragmented presence, than it is to the novel or short story. To watch this film with the story first in one’s mind is to insure frustration; but to read the film as one would the Riis photos (as a discrete catalog of historical social experience) or to attend to the film’s dusky chiaroscuro and its monotonalities is to see Costa’s film for what it intends, and what it can be–that is, for a film that would seek to blend Ventura’s mental geography with the tactile presence that the filmic medium provides, as a child of photography, painting, sculpture and architecture. Horse Money is major work to be sure, but one that challenges and demands to be experienced on its own terms, which is to say as a socially grounded portrait of Ventura’s traumatic private history.