Note. This review originally ran during our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Pedro Costa’s filmography can be seen not only as an unified body of work, but as something approaching a miracle. The incremental shifts in his working methods—away from film crews, from film itself, toward real people and excessive workshopping and endless takes—has stylistically refined his films to an instantly identifiable look and tone. More importantly, however, they have slowly supplanted Costa’s old-school, cinephilic concept of the auteur with a kind of filmmaking that honors the director’s exacting compositions but cedes true authority of voice to the impoverished people who drive his movies. No other filmmaker has so passionately, deliberately foregrounded his privileged position, be it his class or the position of director, and his intensely political cinema avoids the pitfalls of that genre by replacing smug polemics for insoluble, contradictory memories and experiences.
Each iterative film in the director’s narrative filmography has felt like a step forward, but the sheer inability to classify Horse Money in many ways feels like his biggest leap yet, even if it lacks the innovative additions and shake-ups of his last few movies. Opening with a haunting collection of Jacob Riis’s photographs of poor, 19th-century New York workers, the film perpetuates the atmosphere and social context of that work but also radically subverts it. Where Costa’s Fontainhas films explicitly drew attention to the gradually disintegrating slum town and the forced relocation of residents to new, corporate housing, this movie seems to take place, as Costa noted one critic telling him, in space. Ventura, the wandering soul at the heart of Colossal Youth, again leads this picture, but instead of catching up with the Fontainhas residents, he seems this time to speak to their ghosts.
Jacques Tourneur has always influenced Costa, but even the French director never produced a work of such perilous, abstracting shadow. Ventura roams through areas defined by the faintest sliver of light: a cobbled street, a sewer tunnel, hospital rooms, etc. We see only enough of them to register what these places are before the rest sinks into impenetrable night. Even the handful of daytime scenes somehow make shadow of light, with incandescent, white light obscuring everything outside in purgatorial unknowability. Costa previously invited Vermeer comparisons with the detailed social-realist compositions of In Vanda’s Room, but this is closer to the terrifyingly dark worlds of Caravaggio, black not only in use of chiarscuro but in depiction of grotesquerie.
If Colossal Youth and the like criticized an entire history of Portuguese exploitation through a focus on the present, Horse Money illuminates its past. And just as Costa regularly critiques his own role as a filmmaker in his work, he examines the wide contrast between his warm memories of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution as a young artist and Ventura’s harsher experiences as an immigrant living in fear of the violence. Ventura’s performance incorporates his ill health and his poverty, yet the tremors that course through his body could also speak to his lingering terror as visions of his past, of knife-fight scars and tanks that emerge into a dimly lit street, flanked by soldiers who menace Ventura as he ambles around.
Still, Costa has never been an action director, and the most startling moments of the film do not involve stabbings or gunshots but merely the verbal evocation of a horrifying life. Ventura is joined about halfway through the movie by a woman, Vitalina, who recounts her sad tale in an eerie whisper that places her just at the threshold of the dead. Though it figures into the film’s title, money has an abstract impact in what we see of Ventura’s life, an understood context of hardship rather than direct portrayal. But as Vitalina reads aloud from all the identifying certificates she must carry with her as an immigrant subject to constant inspection, her emotional, urgent documentation suddenly attaches a fiercely confrontational note without resorting to soapboxing.
Costa continues to film in a Straubian manner, privileging backgrounds and even random objects with as much care as the performers. But by erasing so much of the frame in shadow, the film trades in the direct social application of Costa’s last three narrative films for an emotional space. The film’s greatest moment is a reworking of a scene Costa contributed for the omnibus film Centro Histórico, in which Ventura rides in some sort of terrifying elevator that seems more stone than steel, accompanied by a static, bronzed soldier who contains the voices of various tormentors, prompting an internal resistance by Ventura against his own demons. If the personal is political, this sequence, like the film that surrounds it, is a reminder that the reverse is also true.
Horse Money may or may not be a true ghost film, but it is undeniably haunted, and if Costa allows the spirits of the Straubs (one of whom is still alive), Tourneur and John Ford to shape the film as much as the people of Ventura’s and Vitalina’s pasts, it is not a case of the director enforcing his vision but finding a perfect balance between his own expressive interests and those of his performers. Potentially the most challenging film to play at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival (even over Godard’s Goodbye to Language), Horse Money is nonetheless one of its most rewarding, and if Costa were not already firmly entrenched as one of the most impressive and necessary working directors, this would be ample confirmation of that fact.