The restless spirits of Portugal’s post-colonial underclass stumble dazedly though the wilds of “Horse Money,” the latest — and in some respects the most striking — of director Pedro Costa’s hallucinatory bulletins from the Lisbon slum known as Fontainhas. Already reduced to rubble at the time of Costa’s previous feature, the polarizing Cannes competition entry “Colossal Youth,” the Fontainhas of “Horse Money” exists only as memory and myth, its displaced residents — led once again by Costa’s non-pro muse, the septuagenarian construction worker known as Ventura — ever more adrift and further from home. Less overtly “difficult” than some of Costa’s work, “Horse Money” still lacks a traditional narrative structure and demands a patient, inquisitive audience, but the director’s cult of admirers has been growing (as evidenced by a Criterion DVD set of the first three Fontainhas features) and should continue to do so with this strange, hauntingly beautiful effort.
Costa has been filming the people of Fontainhas for two decades now (since his third feature, “Ossos,” in 1997), burrowing ever deeper into their lives, adapting his filmmaking methods to their environs, and together with his subjects forging a new kind of poetic realism. And if “Horse Money” is unmistakably a continuation of Costa’s general line of inquiry, it also feels like a further refinement of his technique, from its comparatively taut running time (under two hours) to the shadowy expressiveness of the HD imagery. This is a movie of long, crypt-like corridors stretching toward infinity, and of screen-filling close-ups (shot by Costa and co-cinematographer Leonardo Simoes in the square Academy aspect ratio) that seem chiseled from the darkness, like living sculpture. The camera itself rarely moves, but when it does, it does so with urgency and purpose.
For all the hard-gotten cultural specificity of Costa’s work, it also exudes a universal resonance, the sense that we might meet these same characters — or people like them — in any society where the false promises of democracy and capitalism have cut their swath. It is a point Costa drives home in the opening moments with a montage of black-and-white photographs by Jacob Riis, the great chronicler of New York’s 19th-tenement life and a photographer who, like Costa, gazed upon his subjects with dignity and a marked absence of pity. The movie then advances to a hospital, where we find Ventura among the patients — or, perhaps, the only patient — trudging through the empty hallways and clattering elevators in his bedclothes. A group of men — like Ventura, emigre laborers from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde — appear at his bedside and share their collective tales of woe, of lives ruined by poverty, crime and madness. But as with much of “Horse Money,” it is impossible to say whether these apparitions are flesh or mere fantasy.
The rest of the film unfolds in a similar death-dream fashion, perched somewhere between Joyce and Proust, as Ventura traverses a seemingly endless night populated by the ghosts of his (and his country’s) past. At one point, he tells an inquiring doctor that he is 19 years old and has been brought to the hospital by the MFA, the Portuguese revolutionary army that instigated the country’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, which ended the long and costly African colonial war (and won Cape Verde its independence). And on at least one level, Costa’s film can be considered a mournful contemplation of how, in the span of four decades, Portuguese society transitioned from that halcyon moment to a bankrupt nation on the verge of becoming the next Greece.
The movie falls into three major movements. The first details Ventura’s pained reunion with Vitalina (Vitalina Varela), a majestically sad middle-aged woman who has returned to Lisbon from Cape Verde for the funeral of her husband, Joaquin (despite Ventura’s assurance that Joaquin is still alive, there in the hospital with them). Together, they reminisce about bygone days in bits of whispered conversation and allusive blank verse (Costa’s films are made without conventional screenplays), while Vitalina performs a voodoo-like ritual involving prayer beads. Perhaps Ventura was somehow complicit in the other man’s death. Perhaps he is just a representative figure, carrying the suffering of all his people throughout time. Whatever the case, these two sorrowful presences hold the camera more powerfully rapt than many a professional actor.
Costa inserts a kind of entr’acte in the film in the form of a musical montage set to a melancholic folk song about betrayal and loss, after which Ventura flees into the night and an outside world that has the same quality of suspended animation between now and then, living and dead. Around one corner lurk revolutionary soldiers, who hold the helpless wanderer at gunpoint. Around another, the gutted-out remnants of a construction company, where a man identified as Ventura’s godson claims he’s been waiting 20 years for an overdue paycheck. Finally, we come back to the hospital and to the most enigmatic of Ventura’s ghostly visitors — an entire chorus of offscreen voices (including that of Ventura’s estranged wife, Zulmira) that seem to emanate from the corner of an elevator, while an MFA soldier in grease paint and battle fatigues stands watch like an ancient sentry, who speaks without moving his lips. There is yet more talk of revolution and failed ideals, and of a fight that — no matter how weary Ventura may be — is far from over.
But to describe the action of “Horse Money” is to convey only a fraction of the film’s cumulative power. Working about as far as possible from the commercial mainstream of the movie business, Costa has again made a singular docu-fiction hybrid that defies classification as readily as it reimagines the possibilities of cinema for the post-spectacle, post-theatrical era. “Horse Money” may be a “small” film in terms of its budget and the size of its crew, but it looms very large in the weight of its ideas and its profound feeling for lives ground up and spit out by the threshing machine of history. The pic’s allusive title stems from a conversation between Ventura and Vitalina in which he asks after the health of his former horse, whose name was Dinheiro — the Portuguese word for “money,” as well as an antiquated form of currency. But the answer that follows might just as soon be said of Ventura himself: “The vultures tore him to pieces.”