This film made the lists of some critics’ most notable films a couple of years ago but I had a very difficult time tracking it down. I think this is at least partially because while it was certainly notable, it wasn’t particularly successful. It’s a Portuguese film by Pedro Costa and one of the main reasons it was notable that it is almost completely indecipherable, being close to an experimental film with hardly any plot.
The main character appears to be an elderly black man named Ventura. His mind seems muddled and it’s isn’t initially clear who he is or where is he. Eventually we gather that this is some kind of mental hospital as we watch him be questioned by someone who appears to be a doctor. At times he appears to believe that he still a nineteen-year-old employed at the factory. Other times, he seems to have led a full life with a wife and children of his own. Later another character appears, Vitalina, a visitor who seems to have been married to a colleague of Ventura’s. Through their conversations, we gather that Ventura might have once participated in workers’ revolts against the capitalist class that turned violent. In fact, there are even hints that his current condition might be the result of his injuries sustained during that time. Still there are never any firm answers and for all we know, all of this might just be wrong.
It may be tempting to dismiss this as a fevered dream bereft of any substance save that the craftsmanship in Horse Money is undisputable. The camera shots are all exquisitely composed with clear eye towards creating stark contrasts of light and darkness. The fact that every major character has dark skin only heightens the effect. The soundscape is excellent as well, complementing the visuals perfectly in the form of Vitalina’s raspy whispers, the sound of an old-school rotary telephone dragged across the floor, their occasional bursts into song. Whether there’s any meaning in it or not, it’s a finely made work with every bit of it suffused with intentionality.
My wife thinks that Horse Money doesn’t aspire to anything more than be deliberately obscure. After all, the title itself is cryptic, referring perhaps to a horse Ventura once owned long ago. I don’t think I quite agree. There may be no plot, but certainly it attempts to capture the confusion of mental illness and perhaps the dementia of an old man who finds himself lost in time and space, haunted by his memories of the people he has known and the things he has done. There’s even something in there about the travails of immigrants. There are times when I confess that even though I try to keep an open mind, there is little going on that I find myself being bored and start watching the clock. Yet there are also moments when this film is both intense and engrossing. One of the last scenes is set entirely within an elevator and Ventura spends something like fifteen minutes speaking to a statue-like figure. It sounds boring but to me it was absolutely captivating.
Overall this is clearly not a film for everyone and perhaps it misses more than it hits. This makes it difficult to recommend it to all except the most adventurous and patient, but it would be wrong to dismiss it entirely in my opinion.