Pedro Costa is an acquired taste and I don't mind saying it took me a while to acquire it. It was only after looking (and I do mean looking) at the films he made before the acclaimed arte povera trilogy of Ossos, In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, and after catching up with his dreamy, masterful 1989 debut O Sangue - such a confident achievement for a debuting director that you can't help but look differently at his work after seeing it. That may be the reason why I like Horse Money better than any of his films since that debut.
As he retreated slowly from a linear narrative and "conventional" production mode into a more independent, self-reliant style (based on a minimal skeleton crew and non-professional cast), Mr. Costa limned and sharpened his style to focus on textures and contrasts at the expense of recognisable landmarks, preferring instead to take his viewers on disorienting trips through unknown filmic territory. Horse Money, following both the trilogy that made the director's name worldwide and his forays on the side into documentary, is something else: it retains the loose, semi-improvised narrative austerity of the later work, but visually harks back to the more pictorial formal qualities of the early films. It suggests a beautiful, seductive facade of glorious chiaroscuro expressionism that leads into a phantasmagorical parade of ghosts from the past (a past?), appearing to an ailing old man as he lays in hospital.
Mr. Costa's cinema has always been both allusive and elusive, but the new movie is almost inscrutable in its layering of possibilities and evocative imagery, in what can be read either as hallucinations or fantasies from the ailing Ventura, the African construction worker who has been at the heart of the director's main strand of filmmaking since Colossal Youth and is square in the centre of Horse Money once more. Whatever narrative you can find in the new film seems to feed on Ventura's memories and experiences as a Cape-Verdean immigrant in 1970s Portugal, with the 1974 coup that deposed dictator António de Oliveira Salazar as a particularly important landmark, but where memory ends and fiction begins you'll never know for sure - and the director isn't telling.
Safe to say, this is yet another typical Pedro Costa experience: you either go with the flow of his contemplative pace and pictorialism, or you fail to find an entry point and end up bored and infuriated - and yes, it is entirely possible to be enraptured and then infuriated within the space of one single film, such are the demands that Mr. Costa places as the price of access to his work. But whether Horse Money strikes you as the latest communiqué from a visionary director or just an exclusionary, elitist art film, the sheer imagistic power of the work is such that, like it or not, you will find yourself haunted by these pictures, and wanting to revisit them.
Whether you'll get any closer to the heart of the rabbit hole they lead into is another matter entirely. But what a maze to get lost in!
Cast Ventura, Vitalina Varela, Tito Furtado
Director and screenwriter Pedro Costa; cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Mr. Costa (colour); editor João Dias; producer Abel Ribeiro Chaves; production company OPTEC - Sociedade Óptica e Técnica
Screened August 12th 2014, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival official competition advance press screening)
CAVALO DINHEIRO Trailer from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.