Horse Money (Cavalo dinhero) (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Horse Money

Dir. Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2014, 104 mins, in Kabuverdianu (Cape Verdean Creole) and Portuguese with English subtitles

Cast: Ventura, Vitalina Varela, Tito Furtado, António Santos, Benvindo Tavares

Horse Money is a unique and intense little jewel of slow cinema. It is quite, oppressive, beautiful to watch; a dark mood piece, a plaintive song to growing old and living with memories. Horse Money is poetic and dreamlike but never sentimental.

Ventura (Ventura) is an old man who finds himself in a hospital that seems to have more dank subterranean vaults than antiseptic rooms. His memories materialize around him, people from his past crowding round his bed; but when he walks through the endless vaults, the claustrophobic mood of the film opens out like a night flower into something liberatory: the sense of the past being accounted for in an intense present.

On the one hand, this is a film that is firmly grounded in real-world issues. Ventura is concerned about money, ill-health, the contractual obligations of work and the ethical obligations owed old friends and lovers.

On the other hand, Horse Money is strange enough to make you dizzy. Ventura’s mental landscape, his experiences and his memories are configured in a disquieting present: a world of nameless places that seem different from each other but irradiate the same dank, ancient, institutional feeling. Hospitals, prisons, rooms, corridors – these interior spaces do not echo to the dead step; dripping water merely ticks.

Film events transpire outside the realm of rationality, in a territory that’s darkly lit and full of high-contrast expressionist angles. Events are intangible but the mood is unmistakable, the physical presence of people or the corporeality of memories is the redeeming factor for Ventura and for us.

There is also a wider historical element to the film, which starts with a montage of early 20th century photographs of immigrants recently arrived in New York – and ends with Ventura relating the story of his frightened non-participation in Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution.

Audiences and reviewers get so used to comparing films and tracing the cinematic lineage of a specific film maker’s approach that we can be utterly bowled over by a film that reeks of the unique. There is nothing standard or average about Horse Money; even precedents (Straub-Huillet) are so little known in the UK that they make Godard look like James Cameron.

Horse Money is slightly challenging to watch but only because of our normal viewing habits, or those of most of us at any rate. The best way to approach this film is to give yourself up to it, treat it like a portal into a strange, claustrophobic world rather than as an example of your standard cinematic experience.

Review by Colin Dibben