“We’ll keep on falling from the third floor. We’ll keep on being severed by the machines. Our head and lungs will still hurt the same… We’ll be burned… We’ll go crazy. It’s all the mould in the walls of our houses… We have always lived and we will always die like this. It’s our sickness.”
Certificate 12A 105m approx
Director Pedro Costa
Vitalina Vitalina Varela
Joaquin Tito Furtado
living statue António Santos
Benvindo Benvindo Tavares
This is how one of a congregated group of Cape Verdean immigrant labourers describe their lot in Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, a film that might be subtitled ‘A Universal History of Poverty’. Costa’s film begins with an overture of images by the Danish-American photographer Jacob Riis, showing the bare, stifling tenements of New York City a century ago, yet not so far from the scenes in the Fontainhas slums in Lisbon to which Costa has returned time and again. This precedes Horse Money’s ‘contemporary’ narrative, which begins with Costa’s star and muse Ventura, wearing nothing but a pair of red briefs, descending a gloomy stairwell into the bowels of what at first looks like a stone-walled medieval dungeon, though from one shot to another it may change to appear as a clean, modern hospital.
Costa’s fifth collaboration with Ventura, following 2006’s Colossal Youth, is set in a liminal zone somewhere between life and death, past and present – and the manner in which the past haunts the present is the very fabric of the film. The principal characters, Cape Verdeans all, are haunted by the memory of home. Ventura, who seems to imagine himself on the brink of final judgement (a woman, Vitalina, brings him unwelcome memories and warns him that he is on “the road to perdition”), is haunted by the memory of a knife fight in the mid 70s in which he acquired a headful of stitches and took his opponent out of the workforce. Even the city itself is haunted by its history in the form of its stone monuments, one of which, a lantern-jawed revolutionary soldier, is seen to berate Ventura without his lips moving.
Horse Money is a movie of people nursing injuries that have never properly healed, injuries that may even have been fatal. If Ventura isn’t literally a ghost – something his character is trying to ascertain throughout the film – he is certainly one of society’s innumerable walking wounded, working through his own variety of PTSD, a civilian veteran of a 40-year-old revolution which, for the Cape Verdeans, just meant more of the same.
The film places the viewer in a position to ask the same questions that Ventura’s character is asking himself – am I alive? Have I lived? Its recurring image is that of Ventura shuffling along empty corridors, places that might be closed for the night or abandoned outright.
Though periodically visited by splashes of red – Ventura’s underpants, the crimson shirt worn by his knife-fight opponent – the film’s palette is subdued and sombre, dominated by institutional off-white and mahogany, while the profoundly black night provides a backdrop for some of the most magnificently photographed ebony skin in recent cinema – and blackness is very much among the film’s subjects. I first saw Horse Money a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, which occurred at the same time as protests surrounding the death of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The scene in which the nearly nude and wholly harmless Ventura, surrounded by paramilitary forces at a dark crossroads, responds with the universal gesture that would become Ferguson’s “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest chant, was never out of my mind for long in the year to come.
Largely nocturnal and underlit, Horse Money is full of striking chiaroscuro and other effects: a backdrop of apartment-block windows that look uncannily like cut-outs, or dancing pinpricks of light caught in the eyes of characters who might otherwise seem near-zombified. Much of the dialogue is delivered in whispers, as when Vitalina, speaking in a cadenced hiss, recites the story of her and her late husband’s lives in the language of death, birth and marriage certificates.
It is a sumptuous piece of work that leaves Costa open to the charge of ‘aestheticising poverty’ – an accusation usually levelled by people who prefer to ignore the fact that the poor have an inconvenient habit of aestheticising themselves, like Ventura in his dandyish, cock-of-the-walk ruffle shirt. It’s a film of people who begin and end their days by night, living and dying known and remembered by a precious few, displaying their beauty, their only inalienable property.
The ghost road
With his latest film, Horse Money, Pedro Costa builds on the mythic qualities of In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth to offer a complex meditation on history and memory, colonisation and revolution, and the plight of society’s poor and dispossessed. By Jacques Rancière.