Put your money on that horse

[To my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

2014 was the year of Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), by Pedro Costa. It was the only film looking us in the eyes: from a miserable surrounding cinematic landscape. A few lines inviting to explore one of the most complex works of contemporary cinema. A more ambitious essay would have to consider questions as the place of statues, the choice of buildings filmed by Costa, Portuguese history or the central presence of photography in the film. First impression, it might seem a strange element in this blog, but it is interesting to include here something about a truly different director. At least to begin the year exorcising the bad spirits inhabiting Malick’s work (laughter). Latter we will find time to dig into his garbage. What can I say? If it does not interest you, skip it.


What movies bring to madness and madness brings to the movies? We must say first that movies bring madness to us in a new way, plunging us into darkness in order to bring insanity into the light and make it speak, and second that madness brings itself to the movies, comits itself to cinema, taking up residence there as its proper home, its final virtual asylum. (W.J.T. Mitchell, 2013)

“From Vanda’s room one does not get out anymore.” (J. B. da Costa)

Watch Ventura questioned by the doctor. This film is metacinematic in a more ludic fashion than most of Costa’s work and La jetée (1962) might be remembered in order to understand its play. Ventura, a man whose world is a ruin (Fontainhas no longer exists, his Cape Verde is lost forever), is admitted into a hospital-prison of infinite corridors built by Costa, somehow the doctor-scientist-priest of this therapy-experiment-ritual. Contrarily to Marker’s, this experiment does not send the patient to the past, it brings the past (or pasts) to confront the present. Ventura and the soldier locked up in the elevator.

There are films where the actors have the opportunity to fictionalize themselves. Particularly with Swanson and Stroheim, is not Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) one? Costa, in the tradition of docufiction, makes the gap between the character and the person behind the mask shorter, he even leaves to the actor part of the craft of his own mask and role. This play is a partnership and agreement between actor(s) and director, model and painter: You tell me things; We will find a way of telling those things, or something to do with them. But this is still far from Horse Money. And to say this could be called Inside Ventura is not enough.  
At times we feel that the border between actor (Ventura) and director (Costa), priest and victim, is not at all defined. Identities are not stable in Horse Money, it would suffice to remember Vitalina assuming the role of a doctor (a scene that for moments brought Persona to my mind). One who does not know anything about the film or Costa might even think that Ventura (according to the director he is indifferent to cinema) is actually the director or his alter-ego. It is both with psychodrama and the great classics of self-staging authorship, from Cocteau to Monteiro, that Horse Money finds its family. And only compared with these traditions one can admire its novelty and greatness. At times we ask ourselves if Costa is not trying to be possessed by Ventura in order to produce his friend’s own film, to offer him his own mirror to cross and inhabited a zone made of his own memory, particularly the cinematic. And also if Ventura did not permit Costa to confront the camera and paint the most complex image of his own work. If cinema does not try the impossible, for what then?
“Save me!” (Blood, 1989). “You’re on the road to perdition” (Horse Money). Does Horse Money have a therapeutic value? Does it exorcise anything at all? It begins with a succession of Jacob Riis’s photographs. People living in New York slums around 1900. An answer to this opening occurs in the middle of the film, with a sequence of shots from a Cape Verdian neighborhood accompanied by a Creole song about the lives of the immigrants. The sequence ends in an almost Caligarian alley where the man in the blood-red shirt reappears, descending a staircase holding his knife, searching for Ventura. First, the music and the images of the almost immobile inhabitants permits a somehow redeeming moment, a breath of air; then, Vitalina and the man, the return of the nightmare (fantastic the coincidence of red in the underwear, shirt and motorcycle). The song told us about a bright future when the immigrants will “come back” to their homeland to live their days of heaven, but what comes back is the past, or its demons. A bloody wound following Ventura, following the film. With it finally sits down Horse Money. (Is this beginning strange to the credits of Terrence Malick’s second film?)
Although parallels between the cinema and dreams are a commonplace, rarely was a film capable of giving its spectators the atmosphere of one. Dreyer was pretty close with Vampyr (1932). As a film-nightmare, Horse Money goes at least as far as Dreyer. (A great deal of this power relies in the extraordinary treatment of scenarios. Horse Money fuses some 2000 years of architecture to create Ventura’s prison.) And the film’s last shot seems a clear answer to any possibility of escape. We are in a never-ending nightmare echoing through the corridors of history.
So, we might well ask the stupid question: why? Costa himself says he does not like to do films like this. There is something of the order of addiction at stake. A wound one cannot heal and feels the need to expose, to explore.
One thing we can say: if there is no way out from this community of nightmare-dreamers for Ventura or Costa, there is neither for us. Put your money on that horse.