Horse Money (2014), Portuguese cinema

Horse Money (2014)


The films of Pedro Costa do not necessarily make comfortable viewing; they are definitely ‘art house’ films, which will put some people off. However, they are worth investing time on. Costa is a well-respected director who depicts the lives of the under classes of Lisbon, in particular the immigrants from Cape Verde. Using the same central character, Ventura (played by Ventura), as in Costa’s 2006 film Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha), Costa’s 2014 film Horse Money (Carvalo Dinheiro) depicts the immigrant experience as a nightmare in an existential hell and, as with nightmares, it doesn’t work in a linear way and a lot of it doesn’t make sense. At the beginning of the film we see an elderly man in his underpants, Ventura, walking down a dark narrow tunnel. He looks dazed and frightened. At the end of the tunnel he is blinded by a very bright light. We then see a man in a white coat put some clothes on him. Is he in hell or in a hospital? Are the Cape Verdean men who visit him, who all have tales of being exploited and mistreated by their white employers, real or ghosts? It is not clear why Ventura is in the hospital. There is talk of a knife fight with another Cape Verdean man, Joaquim de Brito Varela (Tito Furtado), who keeps reappearing in a bright red shirt, but it is not clear whether the fight took place recently or in the 1970s and who stabbed whom. Varela’s widow, Vitalina (played by Vitalina Varela) visits Ventura in the hospital. Talking throughout in a pained whisper, she has come to attend her husband’s funeral, although Venture insists he is alive. In one scene we hear Vitalina reading out her husband’s death certificate, both their birth certificates and their marriage certificate, but even these certificates bring an element of uncertainty.

One of the more accessible scenes is a musical interlude showing a series of vignettes of the daily lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in the slums of Lisbon, while a famous Cape Verdean song, ‘Alto Cutelo‘ by Os Turbarões is played over the top. The pretty Afro-Latino melody belies the lyrics of hardship experienced by the people who emigrated to Portugal. These vignettes refer back to the Jacob Riis photos shown at the very beginning of the film, of immigrants in the New York slums at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The parallels are clear and nothing needs to be said.

Soldiers from the 1974 revolution appear in flashback scenes, culminating in a long scene set in a lift where Ventura meets a living statue soldier (António Santos), with whom he seems to have had some history. The statue refers back to something that happened 38 years ago, but we don’t get satisfactory answers as to what happened. Their conversation is conveyed through thought rather than speech and the voices of other characters, including Ventura’s wife, add to Ventura’s turmoil. The tension that builds up during this scene climaxes with loud, unexpected chords of organ music (‘Apparition de l’Église Éternelle‘ by Olivier Messiaen) and the film almost enters horror film genre at this point.

Despite the lack of linear plot, the film is a tightly constructed tour de force by Costa. Beautifully shot in almost photographic half-light, with half-images and sparse dialogue, the film is not an easy one to watch, but it stayed with me for a long time afterwards.