Horse Money (2014)

Review #1,191

Director:  Pedro Costa
Cast:  Tito Furtado, Antonio Santos, Vitalina Varela
Plot:  While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.

Genre:  Documentary / Experimental
Awards:  Won Best Director (Locarno).
Runtime:  103min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Optec

Not the best way to be introduced to the work of Pedro Costa, Horse Money marks the first time I'm exposed to the art of a filmmaker who has been widely regarded as a European master, at least for those who have championed his works.  I would like to thank the Singapore International Festival of Arts for the opportunity to see it. 

Very much a tonal elegy in docu-fiction form, Horse Money challenges the very nature of what cinema is.  Notice that I have labelled the film as a docu-fiction, and not a docu-drama.  This is because Costa doesn’t give us a narrative, although Horse Money is about trying to come to terms with the possible existence of one, even if it may have already been eradicated.  It weaves a fiction from a multitude of fractured realities, not limited to the physical or the psychological, and while it seeks to document, it is also interested in mythmaking. 

Horse Money adds to Costa’s impressive filmography centering on the people of Fontainhas, particularly his earlier films Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006).  Ventura, playing himself, and from Colossal Youth, is lost in the woods.  The Fontainhas community, whose slums were destroyed by the Portuguese government and relocated to the outskirts of Lisbon, try to locate him.  It is an allegory, the search for a better future, a more certain future. 

There’s no narrative impetus though, and the film moves ever so slowly, stopping to frame the subjects in both long shots and close-ups.  Costa is a master of chiaroscuros, delicately filming in unforgiving conditions with minimal lighting to astonishing effect.  His ‘actors’ transit in realms of light and shadow – they appear, they disappear, but their presence is eternalized by Costa’s modus operandi. 

After just seeing one of his films, I am beginning to feel that Costa is one of the most important filmmakers working today.  In a remarkable change of tone midway through the film, a hummable song with fatalistic lyrics is played non-diegetically, accompanied by old photographs of the Fontainhas people in their slums.  It is only one of two sequences with music in the film. 

Horse Money is austere, and will challenge even the most seasoned of arthouse film buffs.  With roots in experimental cinema and photography, Costa’s film shows us that cinema can be more than just storytelling; there’s the opportunity to resuscitate through art the plight of a forgotten community, through a genuine understanding of the human condition. 

Verdict:  A tonal elegy in docu-fiction form with Pedro Costa showing why he is a master of chiaroscuros, even if his film remains austere and challenging even for the arthouse film buff.


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