Monday, 14 September 2015

Knacker's yard: "Horse Money"

Horse Money marks the first real UK theatrical push for the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, a demigod on the festival circuit whose In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) are frequently cited on lists of the 21st century's most essential works. Like those projects, the new film developed out of Costa's close ties with the people of Fontainhas, a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon that plays host to a small community of immigrants from Cape Verde, and is organised around the kind of figure we hardly ever see on screen in the West - this is Costa's regular (non-professional) lead Ventura, not just an African male, but an ageing African male, one who has tales to tell about the live that he's led. That ageing is the key signifier this time around: Horse Money finds Ventura lying trembling in a hospital bed, victim of a lung disease attributed to the mould lurking in the walls of his shack. 

What action there is here concerns the ways by which Ventura strives to alleviate his boredom, and maybe unburden his soul. As he potters around the largely empty, echoey institution, certain scenes resemble extracts from the psychogeographic school of video art; more striking yet are Costa's attempts to burrow inside his protagonist's mind and access what feels like an especially vivid memory of the slums. As projected here, Ventura's adopted home is a rabbit warren (sometimes rabbit hole) of Escher steps and corridors and pitch-black crevices in which a man might find himself confronted by his demons - whether walking down the street at midnight, or simply stepping into a lift. (There is almost certainly mould in the walls of these shacks; an undermining decay is visible just about everywhere else, too.)

Experiencing this heightened description of space and place, I got some of what Costa's passionate devotees see in the director's work. Yet I'm not so sure the people passing through these tableaux really come alive - or, indeed, whether they'd be allowed to come alive in a film so preoccupied with death and decline. Three-quarters of the way through Horse Money, Costa takes snapshots of Ventura and his fellow slumdwellers within their shacks: it's visually arresting, chimes with the opening photographic montage of turn-of-the-century New York immigrants, and suggests this director might have found his natural metier as a kind of Portuguese Martin Parr, albeit one without much of a sense of humour. But it also set me to questioning the extent to which Costa was allowing his subjects to live, breathe and represent themselves, and how much they were merely being posed.

I liked the sequence in which Ventura is compelled to drag a rotary dial phone by the handset through a dilapidated information exchange, but it's not something anyone in real life would actually do. (You'd lose the connection, surely.) Throughout the new film, there's never any practical sense of what the Cape Verdeans of this community do, save acting something out for a passing showman, and waiting to die before the camera. The issue of exploitation has to raise its head here, as it would anywhere else. Perhaps if you've seen those earlier films, you'd have more of a relationship with Ventura and co; yet for newcomers like myself, the obscurantism of the lighting - Costa's desire to plunge half to three-quarters of the frame into shadow to create Rembrandt-like effects - risks seeping into the rest of the film: these pools of darkness aren't so much alluring or mysterious as impenetrable, off-limits, forbidding.

Of course, you're free to claim Horse Money, among Costa's other films, as a counterblast to the smarmy commercialism (and Caucasianism) of so much cinema up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe *spits*, where the determination is to bring every morsel of narrative and thematic popcorn up to the viewer's lips for easier consumption; maybe there's an audience of masochists out there who enjoy going to the cinema to put in a shift of hard work. (God knows, Costa looks to have converted critics enough to sustain the running of several franchises simultaneously.) Yet such tight-lipped austerity looks to me like merely the yin to those movies' splashy yang, the broccoli to their Whopper: wolfing down too much of either wouldn't do your constitution too much good. Artfulness can smother truth and enlightenment, just as surely as rank commercialism can: I could feel myself getting older during Horse Money, without necessarily getting any wiser.

Horse Money opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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