“While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.” - Pedro Costa, enigmatically describing the outline for Horse Money.
Its a hard question to answer, whether and when its best to enter a text free of exterior knowledge, context or bias, or when a little reading or understanding of the filmmaker, the country or the film itself can aid enjoyment. In the case of Horse Money, though a vague understanding of Costa’s working practise and his relationship with his characters could be beneficial in best appreciating the film, more than any film he has created before Costa has built a work that reveals itself directly in the image. Such is the gravity of what Costa conveys, with even the smallest amount of legwork from the viewer in terms of attention and reading, Costa’s visually astounding compositions layer meaningfully to reveal a film laden heavily with mounting grief.
A fundamentally abstract film ran through the prism of narrative, Horse Money looks at one man's crystallised recollections of a life, one with enough trauma, struggle and pain for a whole society. Enveloping the semi-abstract imagery in beautiful lighting, Costa makes a portrait of the aching, time-heightened hurt of leading man Ventura that stands in for the pain of any oppressed peoples. Ventura, in a phenomenal performance (the most performative and projected of his roles in Costa's films so far) shakes and stumbles around in a state of dementia, revisiting imagined scenes from his past and from the national past, mumbling poetic remembrances and generally struggling with the memory of a difficult life.
Costa stages these run-ins with past friends in elaborate tableaux, bathing his 4:3 frames in a lighting style informed by German expressionism, but re-envisioned through a more colourful, hallucinatory lens. Ventura wanders aimlessly, on a path another describes as a 'road to perdition,' as the ghosts of the past, long repressed, surface around him. The emergence of these spirits is as much exorcism as therapy, some haunting Ventura and other soothing him. The past is a part of us, and Costa seems to be using the gift he has for images to mercilessly evoke it. The more we repress something, the more violently it eventually emerges.
In the film’s most harrowing, powerful moment, across an extended sequence Ventura is bullied by a particularly vile ghost, a revolutionary soldier who in turn calls into question his commitment to the cause, his marriage, family and his life’s work. Such is the empathy Costa has generated to this point, and such is the power inherent to Ventura’s expressive, weary face, this scene hurts. This scene, perhaps the standout moment in the film, was used by Costa as his submission to the Centro Historico portmanteau project created loosely around Guimarães, in Northern Portugal. Tellingly, viewing this scene in isolation has nothing near the effect of seeing it as part of the sum of Horse Money. Alone, it was a nice, abstract visual piece. Seen with the surrounding scenes that Costa supplies in Horse Money, and with a certain mindset necessary for approaching the film, it was profoundly impacting. By the time Ventura pulls out that totalising, gesture, the effect becomes physical - body convulsing, stomach knotted.
This is a deeply empathetic work, torturous but also magnificent. Miserabilism faces criticism as it beautifies ugliness for mere aesthetic affect. In this film, as he has always has, Costa makes art out of suffering not as mere visual ploy, but as a way of illuminating the collective anguish, hurt and anger of the persecuted, evoking a profound sympathy that comes from direct experience and ingratiation, rather than distanced observation. Costa reclaims the darkness, cloaks it in his stark, transformative light, and creates justifiably morose art.