Horse Money: An Interview with Pedro Costa
by Aaron Cutler
Horse Money (2014) opens silently with a series of black-and-white photographs. Groups of men lay slumped over tables inside a low-roofed room; bundled-up men and women sit together; white and black adults and children stand posed in front of alleyway homes with their faces looking directly at the camera. The film then moves into sound and color by showing a 19th-century Théodore Géricault portrait of a pensive black man, soon followed by an aging, shirtless Cape Verdean man descending through darkness along what look like a dungeon’s steps.
This present-day man, named Ventura, is the main actor in Horse Money, a hybrid of fiction and documentary in which he re-creates both real and imagined episodes from his life. The still photographs that begin the film were taken by Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant to the United States that recorded the lives of New York’s tenement dwellers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In linking Ventura—an impoverished immigrant who has lived in Portugal for several decades—to the images preceding him, the director Pedro Costa places his eighth feature-length film inside a history of representation.
The film’s opening announces that Costa’s work as that of chronicling an unheralded lower class. Riis’s photographs are echoed at Horse Money’s midpoint, with a sequence of still lifes of Cape Verdean immigrants to Portugal pensively seated inside their homes or looking out their windows. The soundtrack during this sequence presents Cape Verde’s most famous musical group, Os Tubarões (“The Sharks”), singing “Alto Cutelo,” a melancholy song about a man who pursued a work contract in Portugal and left his wife behind.
Horse Money suggests Ventura to be some version of that man. This tall, solitary figure with a haunted look and a distended belly originally departed from his African then-colony to come as a construction worker during the tail end of Portugal’s dictatorship era known as the Estado Novo (“New State”). He helped build several important buildings in Lisbon until a head injury forced him into early retirement. For many years, he lived with other Cape Verdeans in a now-nonexistent slum called Fontaínhas, which Portugal’s democratic government ordered torn down during the first decade of the 2000s.
The bulk of Horse Money shows a displaced Ventura wandering through long, shadowy hallways in an unnamed building that sometimes looks like a prison and sometimes like a mental asylum. He reveals to another character early on that he has arrived there after being diagnosed with a nervous disease. Ventura’s left hand trembles unceasingly, and at times his whole body shakes with painful memories; a smile crosses his face at other points as he recalls his wife Zulmira, who he claims is still in Cape Verde and whose plane ticket he still hopes to buy. He occasionally appears with a piece of paper in his hands, possibly a letter meant for her.
Viewers familiar with Costa’s cinema will likely recognize Ventura. In the mid-1990s, the director began filming in Fontaínhas with several of its residents as his actors, a choice that resulted first in a startlingly direct and spare character-driven drama called Ossos (1997, aka Bones) and then in the more languorous epic In Vanda’s Room (2000), which offered intimate portraits of the strong-minded title character Vanda Duarte and of people around her against a backdrop of bulldozers at work. He met Ventura during the making of In Vanda’s Room and used him on screen for the first time in Colossal Youth (2006). In that film, Ventura wanders through a shrinking Fontaínhas that is being knocked down to make room for government housing. He looks for the many people that he refers to as his children (Vanda included) and calls for them all to come live with him. His response to stark conditions is to search for peace of mind.
Costa works largely without scripts, instead taking cues from his performers and enabling them to shape and dictate the forms of his films. The loud, garrulous, and oft-seated heroin addict Vanda challenged Costa to directly face and record her without pretense. The quieter, dreamier Ventura, in contrast, allowed the filmmaker to follow him on myriad walks and guided Costa’s camera through a gaze that seemed to layer his memories on top of sites.
Ventura and Costa have by now collaborated on a series of films that additionally include the short works Tarrafal (2007), The Rabbit Hunters (2007), O nosso homem (2010, aka Our Man)—all three of which take place on a Cape Verdean island that doubles as a vision of the afterlife—and Sweet Exorcist (2012), which consists of scenes that appear again with small editing differences in Horse Money. These films increasingly leave the distinction between what is happening inside and outside of Ventura’s head ambiguous, presenting sequences in a nonlinear fashion that suggests them to be all, in some way, unfolding in a single present moment.
During the fragmented, frequently dreamlike Horse Money, Ventura works through his place within Portuguese history. He is, among other things (both in the film and in life), a person born on an island whose first inhabitants came as a result of the Portuguese slave trade; a longtime victim of poverty whose circumstances have grown more dire with Portugal’s recent economic crisis; and a witness to the “Carnation Revolution” that formally ended the Estado Novo on April 25th, 1974. On that day, a group of young soldiers from the left-leaning Armed Forces Movement (MFA) overthrew Portugal’s fascist regime with popular support, eventually leading to a democratic government that, in the name of maintaining order, nationalized a number of businesses while leaving many workers without better conditions.
Throughout the course of the film, Ventura’s mind keeps returning to the Carnation Revolution and its aftermath. He fixates not on marches, but rather on his terrified acts of fleeing and hiding from from soldiers who wandered the woods in search of possible dissidents. He relives his receiving a severe wound from a knife fight on March 11th, 1975, the same day as a failed countercoup that led to government restrictions. Ventura’s life has not improved since then, a fact that the film underlines when he tells a doctor his current age: nineteen years and three months. He registers as a person stuck in time.
Horse Money also stars some of his fellow prisoners, with a few of them standing out. One is the Cape Verdean woman Vitalina Varela, who appears before Ventura’s eyes as a phantom presence, walking slowly and whispering hoarsely. She tells him that she has arrived in Portugal following her husband’s death and relates the destruction of Ventura’s property back in Cape Verde (including the titular horse, which she says was torn apart by vultures). It is alternately suggested that Ventura killed Vitalina’s husband; that he is a still-living fellow inmate (played by Tito Furtado) wandering their forbidding institution’s halls; and that he and Vitalina exist as shadow projections of Ventura’s guilt over not being back home.
Another key figure is the living statue of a Carnation Revolution soldier (played by Antonio Santos) with whom a pajama-clad Ventura finds himself trapped in an elevator during the film’s final long sequence. This being charges Ventura with having lived a useless life and challenges all his accomplishments with an insistence that they will soon be forgotten. “Where are you now, Ventura?” it periodically, accusatorially asks. The encounter forces Horse Money’s trembling lead to account for himself, and to find means with which to battle oblivion.
Cineaste: How did you hope to depict the Carnation Revolution in Horse Money?
Pedro Costa: I would first like to say that you don’t actually need me to tell you any of what I am going to say. I hope that this film can think for itself, see for itself, hear for itself. Perhaps this might annoy some people, but there are no mysteries or artistic secrets to be revealed. All I can say is that everything is on screen. The shoot was devastating. We shook a lot. Ventura is desperately trying to remember, but this is not necessarily the best thing. So I think we made this film to forget, really to forget, and to be done with it.
Now, the Carnation Revolution was not as idiotic as its name sounds. Those young captains who led it, the reason they did it—apart from ending a forty-eight-year-old rotten fascist regime in Portugal—was to end several wars that were being waged by Portuguese forces in the African colonies. They were going to fight in Angola, in Mozambique, and in Guinea-Bissau (then known as Portuguese Guinea) and to be killed by African liberation movements.
They wanted to stop the Portuguese Colonial War, put an end to colonialism, and change the country that Cape Verdeans like Ventura, Vitalina, and Ventura’s nephew Benvindo (also a character in Horse Money) had come to build. These immigrants had arrived in Portugal in ships and planes to work on big construction projects involving new roads, schools, banks, and hospitals. These builders of the new Portugal lived in barracks in shantytowns, starved, and suffered.
I come from a background of History Studies, which is a bit like Anatomical Studies—you open up a body and try to understand the disease, the cause of death. That’s what we are doing in Horse Money. History and politics allow us to be delirious in tone and color. You can be a bit extravagant at times when you deal with subjects like this. After all, isn’t politics a long, sordid procession of murder, torture, and treason? And today our dear revolution seems so far removed and unreal.
The work always starts with stories and recollections told by Ventura of his truth, or of his memory of the truth. He and I were in the same place when the Carnation Revolution broke out on April 25th of 1974. I had the chance to be a young boy taking part in a revolution and I could discover and experience politics, music, films, and girls, all at the same time. I was yelling in the streets. I was taking part in the occupations of schools and factories. I was a kid and it was the time of my life. It took me thirty subsequent years to realize that Ventura was in the same places as me at that time, and was terrified and hiding out with his comrades. He told me his memories of a time spent in what he calls his "prison," where he fell into a long, deep sleep. Horse Money is very centered on Ventura’s state of mind and body.
It’s a dangerous enterprise to put the fate of a community, its collective memory, into the trembling hands of a madman. At the same time, cinema seems to have been invented to do exactly this and to tell such tales. Some artists have been faithful to storytelling rituals and even managed to raise their bar. Jean Rouch, for instance, was possessed, and you can see it in the films he made with the Nigerian healer Damouré Zika. I can hear him saying about Jaguar (1967), “Mr. Damouré, let’s be done with this evil that torments us. Put on your cape, dear Lam, fight me and I’ll be your Saint Liberator.”
Of course, our work is also remembering. Ventura and I tried to map out the past with questions as though we were making a chart on a table: Where were you at 5 o’clock on the 25th? Where was I? Where were you when the soldiers arrived downtown? When it became sour on March 11th, did you hide? Did you forget about your wife? Was I writing a letter to my first girlfriend? Were you building a school or a bank? While I was studying the Middle Ages, Ventura was building the Banco de Portugal, stone by stone, just like the bricklayers did centuries before him. That bank almost collapsed two years ago.
Originally the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch sailed on their expeditions to the Indies and to the Americas, and the voyages could last two or three years. The deserted archipelago of Cape Verde in the middle of the Atlantic was the strategic place where they could rest and then leave their aristocratic wives behind to wait for them. It was also where the Portuguese founded one of the biggest slave markets of the Western world. The slaves were brought there from Senegal and from the Congo. On some tropical nights, a pale lady longing for her conquistador husband would cross paths with a beautiful black colossus, and over time a new breed was born: the Cape Verdean. The islands of Cape Verde were uninhabited blank pages filled in by miscegenation. Ventura is one of their sons.
We did not have the ships and the wigs in our budget to re-create this slave trading saga. We do not have the young captains with us today. We lost the revolution. We no longer have Fontaínhas. But a slave is a slave. We have Ventura and Vitalina and they can confront a soldier and that’s enough. Anyway, there’s no chance for a film to re-create the past. The past, in a film, is always unfolding in the present.
Cineaste: How is this idea of an eternal present related to the ways in which you present Horse Money's characters?
Costa: I have friends who tell me that I have come with Ventura and Vitalina to a point of no return. The soldier in the elevator keeps asking, “Where are you now, Ventura?” My feeling is that Ventura and all of his brothers and sisters are caught in these intervals of time and space in which nothing belongs to them anymore. Time and space are not theirs. They can’t recognize anything. The whole film unfolds in a sort of capsule that is much more than a hospital. It’s a sort of prison, or an asylum. This place was a big part of his life and of the lives of those surrounding him, lives spent as though on anesthesia or in oblivion.
The captives were sedated, beaten, locked up. Now they are not home anymore. They are not sane. They were thrown out of their houses, out of their heads, out of their bodies.
This film is not science fiction, though. This is not The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It is rather about people who were condemned to lose. They began by losing their country, and then they lost their integrity, their peace and happiness, and their traditions. The houses that they had built with their own hands in Fontaínhas were torn down. They have been cheated, exploited, beaten, and murdered by ruthless governments and police for over five hundred years now.
And Vitalina Varela is not Madam X. She’s not a ghost. She’s a fifty-year-old Cape Verdean woman who still hasn’t gotten her Portuguese legal papers. She’s someone who still couldn’t get a miserable pension from her husband’s death. Vitalina is all the women that stayed behind, that were forgotten, or that arrived too late. But Vitalina is also youth and a promise of love. She is the letter.
In Colossal Youth, Ventura was searching, researching, and trying to understand what was happening to his habitat and to his neighbors. As he went, he kept bumping into deranged, lost souls. Now it’s his turn to be caught and scrutinized in another time, a kind of medieval, inquisitorial time. Some parts of the film even resemble ancient settings: Is he entering a Roman crypt? A dungeon in a castle? Do you remember the film Häxan (1922), or Witchcraft Through the Ages? Well, here it’s Ventura imprisoned throughout the ages, from the eleventh century until today.
Like a lot of prisoners, Ventura needs and imagines his company. We could say that Vitalina is also his invention. Suddenly, one night, this woman is conjured up and comes flying across the Atlantic just to visit him. Even time slows down a bit while she walks and talks. Before him, she is the sacrificed one. Her husband could be dead—that’s her tragic story. But he could also be alive somewhere, hiding; he just stopped phoning and sending the money for her to come join him.
She throws a lot of bad news and bad memories in Ventura’s face and he doesn’t fight back because he asked her to come. She still resides in that dark side of his mind, though, and because he’s so afraid of that part of his mind, he eventually has to throw her back into an abyss.
Her presence is mainly very subdued, and the long space over which you see her is rhythmically opposed to what comes after she leaves. The elevator sequence with the soldier is fast and sharp. All the shots fall and cut like a French Revolution guillotine would. You won’t stand a chance, Ventura, and you in the audience will not have time to think. You are not being judged. You’re being accused and condemned.
This elevator setting is the stage for a kind of trial. Justice is very close to cinema. Some of the best films revenge something, don’t they? Most of mankind’s stories—I mean the stories of the lower classes—either have been told wrongly or haven’t been told at all, so cinema has to step in. It is the work of people like Chaplin, Renoir, Straub, and Stroheim to avenge injustice. During the time that you spend with them during their films, they don’t just represent the avenging. They do it.
For me, the primary function of cinema is to make us feel that something isn’t right. I am quoting Buñuel and also thinking about Ozu, who is a guy that never lowered his guard. In every frame of every film of his you can see that unrest. It’s in small things. It’s barely visible. It can be just a hand shaking with an apple in it. It can be the empty space left by a departed loved one.
Films that lose sight of injustice and of fragility are useless.
Cineaste: Why did you choose to open Horse Money with photographs by Jacob Riis?
Costa: That was one of the hardest sequences that I have had to edit in all my life. It’s very difficult to edit something without movement, something that has neither beginning nor end. I wanted to avoid the intention or the temptation of aligning a story, a dramatic progression, because the function of that preface lies elsewhere: It should help us take off, begin the journey, and lead us down the stairways, the alleys, and those spaces that keep taking us endlessly back to the starting point of an everlasting present.
Like the Lumière brothers, Jacob Riis was a pioneer. He invented a certain way of looking at things, with a certain freedom of choice in that way of looking. As with the Lumières, he began by photographing and documenting but quickly discovered that something wasn’t quite right in reality. So he began repeating, rehearsing, staging. In his photographs you can see a bunch of drunkards on a street corner, or a guy being mugged, but if you look closely, you will also notice one of them smiling and the con being revealed.
I have always felt that I belong to Riis’s world. Even if his pictures portray scenes of great social distress, they never surrender to demagogy. They are not “candid shots.” They give us the freedom to choose what to see.
Jacob Riis has a touching life story, very Chaplinesque. For a time, he wandered the streets without a cent in his pocket followed everywhere by a little stray dog. He wrote a lot. The photographs were a kind of complement to the notes he took about the tenements of New York. The pictures were not enough for him. He had to use all his materials to confront the power structure.
His was a noble attitude. The spirit and work of such citizen-photographers has formed me. Books like Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) and James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) have been as important to me as the greatest of films have been.
Cineaste: Horse Money is the most recent of several films that you have made with Ventura. How has your collaboration with him developed over time?
Costa: It is obvious that, more and more, I need him to stand and stand tall. I need him to think about his condition and to say things that I don’t know how to say myself. He’s my oracle, and he has a double face. He’s the pioneer, the adventurer, the immigrant who survived all the violence of this rotten society. At the same time, he’s also the fool, the broken hero. To me he is both absolute truth and inevitable failure.
People see him trembling in the film and are quick to diagnose him with Parkinson’s or something. It’s sad. Do these people lack eyes? It makes me think how much cinema has lost and how much we have lost with that loss. Remember all the frail, frightened human beings in the films of Griffith, Murnau, Borzage, and Mizoguchi? We used to call what they had “the human condition” or “the demons of our inner life.” Faulkner used to talk about “the grief and inhumanity of mankind.”
Fortunately, Ventura’s tall side is still very present. He’s still impressive and when I say that, I mean really, in the photographic sense: Gary Cooper, Dana Andrews, Robert Ryan, Jimmy Stewart. I think he’s the last in a great line of studio actors. I rarely see that kind of stature in films anymore—with Straub (even if it’s a landscape), sometimes with Godard, sometimes with Wang Bing, but not with many others.
So I need him. I am not sure if he needs me. He never tells me this, but I do know that he is interested in our work. I think it helps him escape a lot of nightmares. The films help him exercise his legs and sometimes his mind. We walk. We do a lot of takes. We work a lot. Filmmaking is still a very physical job. Well, perhaps it’s not as hard as laying one brick over another (as he always says), but it still occupies and distracts him.
He is a diabetic, an ex-alcoholic, a diagnosed schizophrenic and anemic—that’s the picture. His daily life is the same as that of every unemployed, retired, handicapped underdog in the world. It’s the life spent in the corner of the bar, with bleak horizons and nothing beyond a deck of cards and two or three glasses of wine.
He forces me to lose time and to lose myself in the film. If we are digging too deep and finding nothing but darkness, then our work together will lie in darkening that darkness. Ventura is the kind of guy who helps you do that. He’s a poetic being, of which there are not many left around. I’m talking about people like our forefathers who really did make roads and tables and shoes and buildings with their hands, who loved and suffered and went through life with their eyes and ears open.
Sometimes I like to say that our work together is like trying to cross a deep, black ocean. There is a black hole that exists between us and that doesn’t cease to expand. This unknown is the matter that makes our films.
Cineaste: You use music in striking ways in Horse Money. How did you make your choices?
Costa: I’ve always loved music. I played a little bit of guitar when I was young, and at one point I thought that I was going into music and not into cinema. My childhood and my teenage years were much more devoted to music, and in those days my salvation lay in it.
My passionate cinephile life was quite short. It lasted, maybe, for fifteen years. Today I rarely go to a theater to watch a film. I see some films made by friends, and a lot of DVDs of older films at home. Almost everything bores me in contemporary films; there’s so much inflation and waste being sold as cinema and poetry, and some people are really incontinent or just dumb, filling their films with fireworks and music. Producers and arty sales agents recommend this formula if you want a slot in Cannes or in Toronto. Only a few resist. The film business milieu is rotten to the core, and you have to adapt your working methods in order to conserve the art.
I once made a film that deals only with music. It’s called Ne change rien (2009), and it was a consciously deceptive movie. It was also the most enjoyable shoot that I have ever had in my life. We were a crew of three—me at the camera, Aurélien Gerbault, who helped with some mirrors and lights, and Vasco Pedroso, who recorded the direct sound. We were filming rehearsals and performances by a band of musicians, led by the singer and actress Jeanne Balibar, and I saw people discussing and sharing their ideas as real unit. That’s what I wanted to confirm: that there is no comparison between the absence of coherence and solidarity in a film crew and the competence and care of a musical group. It just doesn’t match.
I think that Ne change rien keeps steady on that track. It records the doubt, the fear, the trembling. It records the simple courage of singing. Each second of that film shows you the fundamental exchange involved in any truly collective work, whether it be artistic or other: “Is he going to be there for me?” “I’m here for him.”
I probably had fond memories of that shoot in my mind when I began thinking about Horse Money. I had a desire to work with another musician—in this case, the great American composer and poet Gil Scott-Heron, a man that I admired not only as an artist, but also as a true citizen. It never happened. He died in 2012. (Well, it could have been Ventura; I was always aware that one of them might go.) Some traces of that project still exist in the film. It’s probable that, at certain moments, Horse Money sounds like a chorus, a kind of polyphonic lament with an elegiac pace.
My choices made with regard to music are a little more explicit here than in some of my previous films. The sequence of shots in the neighborhood with the song “Alto Cutelo” took us through a long and hard editing moment. This sequence might give a hint of what our project with Scott-Heron could have been—without a doubt, it would have been a more abstract construction. On the opposite side of the musical spectrum, the film’s other main musical moment was quite intuitive. When Ventura “rides” the elevator with the soldier, a burst of organ music plays out as a revelation of pure horror. I never questioned myself about that moment.
Cineaste: Is there anything else that you would like to say about Horse Money?
Costa: Sometimes, I think of a few things about the film that I find interesting, but that only lasts for a brief moment, and then I forget them. It’s strange. It’s a very forgetful film. It’s a film that likes to forget about itself. I guess that that’s the case with most of the work that works itself day by day.
I’m always saying that I can’t have time to think about the “artistic” side of filmmaking because I have to think about so many “unartistic” things, just concrete stuff: The sandwiches. The gas for the car. The pills that Ventura should take but doesn’t have. The Social Security Card that Vitalina needs tomorrow.
After some years of practice in the field, I know now that it’s the so-called production work that often decides what the art in a film will be. I have therefore arranged my filmmaker’s life not to think about the mystifying things. Cinema is very deceitful, it is always begging for a little more—more money, more novelty, more this, more that. One of the filmmaker’s jobs is to resist this hysteria. There are films to be made and films not to be made.
When I was younger, I just wanted to ride the horse and never be bothered about anything else. Now, after time spent on the side of people whose lives contain constant loss, I’m getting used to filming with leftovers. If you simply don't have money, then you have to think about it in a decent way.
Horse Money, which received its U.S. premiere at last fall’s New York Film Festival, is distributed in the United States by The Cinema Guild. It will begin its U.S. theatrical premiere run on July 17th in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in tandem with a retrospective of Pedro Costa’s films.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3