Voices in the darkness: Horse Money review

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro) is the first theatrical release from Second Run DVD, who this month celebrate ten years of releasing neglected masterpieces of world cinema. Second Run have long supported Costa, previously releasing Casa De Lava (1994) and O Sangue (1989), so their first foray into theatrical distribution is apt. Celebrated on the festival circuit – Horse Money won the Best Director prize at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival – this is Costa’s first narrative feature since Colossal Youth In 2006, having directed several shorts and one feature documentary, Change Nothing (2009) in the interim.

Vitalina Varela
Vitalina Varela

Again following the retired labourer Ventura, just as he was the focus of Colossal Youth, Costa casts a shaft of light on the largely uninhabited interior spaces within the hospital that his lead wanders through. Ventura, a man in his seventies, here appears making declarations of his youth, telling the doctor that he’s nineteen and was lost in Fontainhas, his past ever present and unresolved. He encounters Vitalina, she is waiting for her widow’s pension and tells the story, with whispered intensity, of how she struggled to obtain a visa to attend her husband’s funeral. Later Ventura comes upon Benvindo, waiting for his salary; ‘’How long have you been waiting?’’
‘’Over twenty years.’’

Such interactions might perhaps exist only in the mind of Ventura. He appears frail, trembling and confused. He’s vulnerable to the neglect of the state, determined – as are those he encounters – but from their perspective easy to ignore. Until that is, he’s apprehended attempting to leave and the sight of him surrounded by soldiers, cornered by a tank is an image that describes so much about the treatment of Portugal’s post-colonial forgotten peoples. It’s this subject that Costa has made his primary concern, documenting testimony from those whose voices would otherwise be unheard.

Costa and regular cinematographer Leonardo Simões use darkness to startling effect, as exterior light casts shadows on walls in otherwise opaque spaces, the shadow of a window frame creating a structural reference against which bodies are temporarily illuminated. Whenever a close-up occurs, its impact is magnified by the predominance of mid and wide compositions throughout, suddenly identifying the loss and desperation writ upon a lined face.

Horse Money can be thought of as a ghost story, where Ventura is at once haunting the establishment that failed him, and haunted by the voices of his community. Ventura is a figure carrying the weight of personal and collective experience with him, and here Costa has stretched his inhabiting of space and gathering of stories to its gloomy, mesmeric eventuality. An extraordinary and absorbing work of cinema.

Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava

I could write just about the symbolic red of Mariana’s dress – such is the richness and potential for interpretation in Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994). Storming around Cape Verde with either a forthright, potentially desperate intent or equally desperate aimlessness, Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) appears a figure of life, potency and sheer bloody will. Towards the end of the film Mariana changes her clothes, adopting more neutral attire and seeming to calm internally too. Colour is used to startling effect throughout the film, in many cases where Costa’s compositions involve a single character framed within a scorched, dramatic landscape.

Costa’s second feature following the monochrome Blood (O Sangue, 1989) is a ‘remake’ of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and frequently cited as alluding to Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). Construction worker Leão falls on site and becomes comatose, then, in a very concise piece of expository dialogue, the doctor announces that a letter and a cheque have been sent from Leâo’s village, he’s being discharged and will be sent on a plane back home. Nurse Mariana accompanies him from Lisbon to Cape Verde and on arrival attempts to ascertain her patients origins, but is met with denial or silence. A stranger in an unfamiliar land, Mariana’s presence is neither welcomed nor met with hostility, rather a questioning insight that seems to reveal to Mariana more about herself than she is willing to accept.


Violinist Bassoé (Raul Andrade) recounts his sorry tale to Mariana admitting that he has many sons, but is vague when questioned on whether Leão is one of them. Finding her equivalent in Edith, a white woman who arrived years ago and simply never left, Mariana is once again left frustratingly non-the wiser by Edith’s refusal to speak. The refusal, or denial as Jonathan Rosenbaum (who provides the booklet essay for the DVD release) puts it, is the locus of the film. Despite the sometimes perfunctory explanatory dialogue, the bulk of interactions have an ambiguity that hints towards many things and many interpretations, with plot points left unresolved and character motivation in doubt. Mariana is herself in denial about the purpose of her stay on the island, it seeming to go beyond the initial week she supposed without her noticing. At once a musing on colonialism and the notion of the individual within a community, this obliqueness of plot is characteristic of Costa’s filmmaking, the trajectory of which has been described by critic Peter Bradshaw as ‘one of the most fascinating in modern cinema’.

Indeed Costa’s films are highly celebrated but hard to access, none of them having had a UK release beyond individual screenings. Lucky for anyone able to get to the ICA in London this Sunday 30th for a special screening of Casa de Lava in collaboration with Second Run DVD. Costa himself will be in attendance for a Q&A with EIFF’s Chris Fujiwara.