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Historical present: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pedro Costa's Horse Money.

Doctor: Has this happened to you before?

Ventura: It will happen again, yes, it will.

TRYING TO RATIONALIZE Pedro Costa's Horse Money in terms of a synopsis--the film is mostly an achronological assembly of claustrophobic tableaux with one or two speaking characters--is ultimately a fool's game, but connecting it to recent Portuguese history is a necessity. The April 25, 1974, coup known today as the Carnation Revolution, which was led by the left-wing Armed Forces Movement (MFA) and ended the long-standing Estado Novo dictatorship, took place when Costa was in his early teens. Ventura, Costa's slightly older principal protagonist in practically all his recent films--a Cape Verdean immigrant and construction worker who always plays himself and scripts his own dialogue--was around in Lisbon too. But as Costa remarked in a recent interview in Cinema Scope, Ventura's experience of the same events was radically different:

   I was very lucky to have been a young man in a revolution,
   really lucky.... I was discovering a lot of things,
   music and politics and film and girls, everything at the
   same time, and I was happy and anarchist and shouting
   in the streets and occupying factories and things like
   that--I was 13 so 1 was a bit blind. It took me 30 years
   to discover that Ventura had been at the same place, at
   the same time, crying, very afraid of what I was doing,
   and what the soldiers were trying to do. So this is an
   interesting thing. I was shouting the slogans, the common
   revolutionary words with the banners ... and he
   was hiding in the bushes with his comrades, the black
   immigrants, that had started coming in 1968 from all
   the Portuguese ex-colonies.


Even for a filmmaker as radically transgressive as Costa, Horse Money represents a sharp departure. The long takes of In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) now accede to a privileging of traumatic memory and consciousness--and all the narrative fragmentation this entails--over any sustained continuity of space or time. Speaking at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this past spring, Costa noted that in all the photographic records he's seen of the Carnation Revolution, the hundred thousand black immigrants who were in Portugal at the time are completely absent. Horse Money is a willful construction of a phantasmatic world devoted to the survivors (and casualties) of that exclusion.

In terms of settings, this 104-minute feature offers primarily a series of institutional spaces--either decaying, dark, and prisonlike corridors, or tidy but blank and anonymous interiors suggesting a hospital--through which an ailing and troubled Ventura moves or lingers, dressed in pajamas, underwear, or frilly dress shirt and slacks, his hands often shaking. We also see him in ruined work sites relating to his former employment in construction. (His godson, too, appears in these ruins, awaiting a paycheck more than twenty years overdue.) Occasional exterior shots, including one of a forest at night, only extend the Caravaggesque gloom, as in certain films by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, intensifying rather than alleviating the feeling of being stifled. A few key incidents from Ventura's painful past--mostly relating to his teens, including a knife fight in the forest and his arrest by the MFA--are often recounted or recalled, but almost always as if they were recurring in the present; these conjurings culminate in a lengthy sequence in which Ventura is stranded in an elevator with a motionless armed soldier, covered in dull metallic paint, who seems to speak along with many other unseen voices, but without moving his lips. This scene, the first one shot for the film, appeared previously--albeit in a differently edited stand-alone form--as Sweet Exorcism, Costa's contribution to the 2012 portmanteau feature Centro Historico. As this alternative title implies, Ventura's wrestling with his demons is a kind of therapeutic exorcism, at once confession and self-interrogation. "Some people say they make films to remember," Costa has said. "I think we make films to forget."

But what Horse Money "says"--or, more precisely, what it sobs or sings--is far less important than what it does. In the Cinema Scope interview, Costa acknowledges the influence exerted by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Not Reconciled (1965), an adaptation of Heinrich Boll's 1959 novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine. At the time of its release, Straub described his film, which covers several decades of a Cologne family during and after the Nazi era, as follows: "Far from being a puzzle film (like Citizen Kane or Muriel), Not Reconciled is better described as a 'lacunary film,' in the same sense that Littre defines a lacunary body: a whole composed of agglomerated crystals with intervals among them, like the interstitial spaces between the cells of an organism."

Stated differently, a seeming narrative discontinuity of time, space, and even identity is superseded by an underlying continuity of mood and feeling that belongs to what might be described as a public and political consciousness in Not Reconciled and a private and personal consciousness in Horse Money, although this inexact description leaves out the more private, even solipsistic manifestations of this consciousness in Not Reconciled, as well as the elements of Ventura's own traumatized consciousness that can be described as shared--shared, for instance, with a middle-aged woman named Vitalina Varela, another important character in Horse Money, who has returned to Lisbon for the funeral of her husband, Joaquin, and also shared with Costa himself in the collaborative process of composing Horse Money.

Vitalina, who has an even more commanding physical and vocal presence in Horse Money than Ventura, is often seen or heard reciting the contents of official documents relating to the birth and death of her husband, her own birth certificate, and their marriage certificate--mostly in an intense, breathless whisper suggesting her furtive existence as an illegal alien. Ventura periodically tells her that her husband is still alive and in the same hospital, but we don't believe him--or, rather, we only believe him in the sense that, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past is never past; we live only in the present (where the past also continues to live). When Ventura later gives her a letter that he claims her husband wrote to her, we can only surmise that this must be the same letter we have previously seen Ventura writing with a pen taken from one of his doctors. When Vitalina removes the white smock she is wearing (a garment that makes Ventura wonder whether she isn't a doctor herself) and wraps a black cloth around her head to match the black outfit she has had on underneath, she slips into a ritual with beads and speaks as if in a trance. Here, identity and ritual are as fluid and as unstable as the time frames themselves, and pain is the only constant. When Ventura, in one of his ruined former work spaces, drags a phone behind him by its severed cord, the grating sound rhymes plaintively with that made by the suitcase that Vitalina, newly arrived from Cape Verde, is dragging across a public square at night.

Beginning with his earliest features, O Sangue (Blood, 1989) and Casa de Lava (1994), made before the director arrived at the small-scale and more collaborative methods that have shaped his later work, Costa has presided over a series of uncanny shotgun marriages between fiction and nonfiction, narrative flow and non-narrative stasis, the materialism of Straub-Huillet and the spirituality of haunted, doom-ridden fantasy suggested by Lewton and Tourneur. A hard-core cinephile whose filmmaking taste owes as much to the heroic, sculptural, and populist Soviet portraiture of Boris Barnet, Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov as to the expressive and expressionist lighting and color schemes of such Hollywood artisans as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Tourneur, Costa has gone so far as to describe Horse Money as a "horror action film"; the seeming paradox of marrying the blunt realities of a Ventura and a Vitalina with the studio-contrived artifice of a Lewton quickie is central both to his methods and to the philosophical suppositions underlying them.

A romantic attempt to bridge the unbridgeable, Costa's form of alchemy can be criticized for exalting abjection, yet to reject his endeavor is to deny its tragic poetry and visionary power. It is important to recognize that when he begins Horse Money with a display of mostly black-and-white photographs by Jacob Riis of New York immigrant tenement dwellers in the late nineteenth century--the disconnected and somewhat awkward overture and prologue mirrors the heroic portraiture of Cape Verdeans at the start of Casa de Lava, for better and for worse--the tattered condition of the mournful photographs seems as relevant and even as essential to their expressiveness as the dilapidated people and places they depict. There's pleasure as well as pain to be found in the fruits of Costa's arduous process--here, most compellingly, in a musical montage sequence devoted to the lonely inhabitants of Fontainhas (the Lisbon ghetto where Costa first met Ventura) that comes midway through the film. Set to "Alto Cutelo," a dolorous Cape Verdean pop tune by the group Os Tubaroes, this sequence is offered to us as a kind of gift, a reward for staying with the film as long as we have. The Kafkaesque institutional nightmares depicted in Horse Money all involve different forms of waiting, and it's entirely consistent with Costa's method of sharing that we're invited to wait endlessly along with his characters, even if this means waiting for a deliverance that is unlikely ever to arrive.

Horse Money opens July 24 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM IS THE AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS BOOKS ON FILM, INCLUDING, MOST RECENTLY, GOODBYE CINEMA, HELLO CINEPHILIA: FILM CULTURE IN TRANSITION (2010).
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Author:Rosenbaum, Jonathan
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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