Directed by Pedro Costa
Opens July 24 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
following “The Films of Pedro Costa,” July 17–23
The first time Pedro Costa brought his camera to Portugal’s Fontainhas district, a now-defunct impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, he brought a crew with him; the result was Ossos (1997), in which Clotilde (Vanda Duarte) and her lover struggle to deal with their unwanted baby. For In Vanda’s Room (2000), the breakthrough film in which Fontainhas residents (most notably Vanda Duarte) play fictionalized versions of themselves as documentary footage depicts the demolition of their neighborhood, Costa first immersed himself in the community, shooting over 150 hours of footage as a one-man crew. Colossal Youth (2006) took a similar approach and introduced viewers to Ventura, a Cape Verdean immigrant who carries with him the story of an entire generation.
Many of Costa’s critics accuse him of aestheticizing poverty; they are correct. His deliberately composed frames, mise-en-abymes, and chiaroscuro lighting are far from naturalistic, and therefore turn the impoverished life of its subjects into an aesthetic, but that only tells half the story. Costa’s visual style draws attention to what is documented—from In Vanda’s Room onward, he is documenting rather than staging life—while the sounds of the outdoors intrude into the image. Scenes in Vanda’s room are accompanied by the sound of buildings outside being bulldozed, a reminder of what we do not see. Even in O Sangue (1989), Costa’s remarkable, noir-influenced debut, the sounds of the neighborhood hint at the impending intrusion into the makeshift family unit. Costa’s films have always been about forcing the viewer to account for the role of the unseen in depicted reality, and his method has always been carefully composed interiors disrupted by noise from outside.
His latest film, Horse Money, which also follows Ventura, takes place in an asylum, so new tricks are in order. Takes are shorter, close-ups more frequent, and, unlike with Colossal Youth, people are no longer pushed to the edges of the frame, resulting in a drama that initially suggests the individual rather than a place or community. Nonetheless, Costa continues to eschew narrative causality, so Horse Money is paradoxically the hardest of his films to describe in terms of a through-line from beginning to end. The pattern is associative, following Ventura’s stream-of-consciousness as he encounters ghosts from his past, allowing us closer to his story than Colossal Youth. Early in the film we see Ventura burdened with the misfortunes of relatives, becoming a vessel for the broken promises of democracy and capitalism; later, flashback shows the lightly clothed wanderer held at gunpoint during the Carnation Revolution; in the new democracy, paychecks are long overdue and poverty is widespread. In a surreal climax set in an elevator, Ventura exchanges words with the bronzed statue of a soldier that never moves on-screen but is posed differently every time the camera captures it, again emphasizing the importance of what takes place outside the frame and dramatizing trauma wrought in the name of broken promises.
Costa’s aesthetic sensibilities and bold color contrasts thus allow the same distance previous films require, this time repositioning Ventura’s story as allegorical rather than personal, a stand-in for all disenfranchised and underserved. The films of Pedro Costa have long been about implicating the invisible in the destruction of the individual; by working from the inside out and opting for a setting that allows for surrealist devices—the aforementioned elevator scene, but also the frequent voiceovers that bleed into and out of reality—Horse Money exorcises Ventura’s trauma while preserving his story. It also proves Costa’s radicalism has no bounds.