Active Ingredients: Sympathetic evocation of memory; Haunting imagery
Side Effects: Stillness and repetition
[Horse Money opens in limited release, including at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on July 24th.]
A 19-year-old young man, green and optimistic from hope in hard work, is admitted to the hospital. He’s been wounded in a skirmish, briefly caught up in the leftist revolution of Portugal in the 1970s. Only the year is 2013, and the man isn’t 19 but in his seventies. He isn’t brash and viral, but old and infirm, his hands restlessly shaking from a nervous disease as he responds to the questions he was grilled with decades earlier.
Pedro Costa’s haunting documentary/fiction hybrid Horse Money is full of extraordinary temporal discontinuities like this one. Time becomes collapsed, splayed out before us in the darkened halls of an otherworldly interior space, a kind of purgatory inhabited by living ghosts, representing memory and disillusionment.
Horse Money is an elliptical film, but an undeniably immediate and powerful one for all its mysteries. In its essence, it’s a nonlinear excavation of the thoughts and pains of the black Cape Verdean immigrant community of Portugal. From its opening montage of Riis’ photographs of tenement dwellers in 1890s New York, the film compares these conditions to those experienced by the immigrants who made their way to Portugal from its ex-colonies. However, the more relevant connection might be to the status of these photographic subjects as outsiders, a community neglected and sidelined by history. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, the content of these photographs might be subordinate to their frayed edges and soft contrast, fingerprints of time that touch everything.
Put another way, Horse Money is deeply concerned with the experiences of these immigrants left unrecorded. However it’s also invested in discovering a unique way of visualizing the process of recalling these memories, of dredging them up from the past. Working with his frequent collaborator, a Cape Verdean expat named Ventura with a painful and tender wearied dignity, Costa uses long shadows, empty spaces and expressive depth to cast a distinctly ominous mood.
The film’s ambitions reminded me of Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad, another mysterious object depicting a physical location to play out dramas that transcend the specificity of time and space. However Costa has a historical agenda, a dedication to depicting the lives of those citizens excluded from the fervor of revolution. Ventura and his community weren’t revolutionaries, but survivors, fighting their own war to find work and suitable housing and help family members immigrate to Portugal.
Horse Money is composed of recreated scenarios and exchanges Ventura has with fellow musers, both real and imagined. The experience may be slow and alienating for some, but there is considerable raw power in Costa and Ventura’s evocation of memories and the film’s beautiful, haunting imagery.
Perhaps the film serves best as a monument to the community it depicts. Perhaps only they have the context to assimilate all its surfaces and details. But the internal anguish it communicates, the demons and unseen voices it summons, the palpable and pitiable sense of loss it evokes, is nothing short of universal and unifying.