It will surprise few that, like the majority of Pedro Costa’s work, Horse Money is immune to straightforward narrative description. It’s tempting to paint Costa as heir apparent to the neorealists, but the simple demands of a dramatic screenplay—much less a work of propaganda, leftist or otherwise—aren’t even feigned in his latest, which picks up more or less where Colossal Youth left off. That film followed the state’s dismantling of the Lisbon slum known as Fountainhas, and its central figure—a lanky, grizzled Cape Verdean immigrant in his 70s, known only as Ventura—returns as the doubled-down focus of Horse Money. (It’s worth disclaiming that Costa’s work is so politically fine-grained, words like “star” and “focus” can sound like ignorant bromides, jutting against the almost religious quietude of the filmmaking.)
Ventura first appears ambling from a shadowy corner of a desolate concrete structure through a long and narrow black tunnel, his every step echoing off the walls around him. A man in a white lab coat receives him, escorts him to a hospital, and sets him up with a bed. There he’s visited by friends and relatives, all men, and one of them whispers to him, “Ventura, don’t forget your passport. One never knows in a situation like this…” But a situation like what?
Ventura, whose wife left him in Colossal Youth, appears to be approaching the end of his life utterly destitute, and the stops the film gives him along the way are less boxes being checked off in the service of an almighty economic/political thesis than they are fragmented memories. Costa’s storytelling is illusory at best, but Horse Money’s self-contradictions are communicated not via plot half as much as in scenography, even in the costuming: After he tells a doctor he’s 19 years old, Ventura dresses himself in a flared polyester shirt and bellbottom slacks, as his mind drifts back to 1974, when he was in the military on the eve of Portugal’s independence, and he stabbed another young black man. It’s become a cliché to invoke a theoretical debt between Costa’s work and video art, but if anything it’s closer to still photography: The tempo of Costa’s sepulchral, willfully artificial frames only quickens as the film re-enters Ventura’s mind, back when the world held much more in store for him.
Ventura is seen walking at night, perhaps escaping from the hospital, clad in the same underwear he was wearing when the doctor found him, when a tank rolls up and shines its spotlight on him. Two soldiers point guns at him, and once he’s adjusted the brow of his cap, he puts his wobbling hands up. A female visitor comes to him, and their scene together—with both their faces blanketed in pitch-blackness, punctured only by the glowing windows of the surrounding apartment complex—is simultaneously elegant and oppressive, as if the cityscape is digesting them centrifugally while it continues to grow. It’s this multitude of miniature narratives—recounted in other characters’ whispers, burnished by the Jacob Riis immigrant photographs that open the film, or established by Costa as plot, only to be dashed on the rocks of Ventura’s atrophying memory—that gives Horse Money its abiding, silent outrage.
The film’s climactic encounter is an elevator ride shared by Ventura and a soldier, a living statue whose lips stay shut while he tells Ventura everything the old man has suppressed over the years. And like that, both Ventura and the state—which, as Costa has made a career of illustrating, hasn’t done a good job of “keeping” him—are rendered organs of the same being. It’s like a haunted-house movie, only the house in question seems to go on forever, a passacaglia in 360 degrees; even if Ventura thought he had killed another man during the revolution, he has spent the interregnum dying from the same knife wound.