My best bet for the third week of the Siskel Center’s European Film Fest is Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal. The film follows Ventura, the retired construction worker from Cape Verde first introduced in Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), as he wanders the confines of a prison-like hospital in contemporary Lisbon. I recently spoke with Costa about the film in advance of its Chicago premiere.
Horse Money obviously grew out of Colossal Youth to some extent yet it also differs in that it feels like a more direct confrontation with the legacies of Portugal's fascist and colonialist past. Why did you move more in this direction?
The starting point of this film was the stories told by Ventura. We were in the same place when the Carnation Revolution broke out in Portugal in April of 1974. I had the chance to be a young boy in a revolution and suddenly I could discover and experience politics, music, films, girls, all at the same time. I was happy, I was yelling in the streets, I was taking part in the occupations of schools and factories. I was 13 and it blinded me. It took me three decades to realize that my friend, Ventura, was in the same places in tears and terrified, hiding with his comrades like him from immigration. He told me his memories of a time spent in what he calls his "prison," where he fell into a long deep sleep. I can hardly say more, it's all in the film, and the shooting was devastating, we shook a lot. Ventura is desperately trying to remember, but this is not necessarily the best thing. So I think we made this film to forget. Really to forget, and to be done with it.
The film takes place in the present yet Ventura refers to the date as March of 1975. It occurred to me that his hospital stay could be a re-enactment of the trip to the military hospital he describes after the knife fight from 40 years earlier. Did you intend to meld the past and present?
But there's no other way. There's no use to try and make a film about the past; it's stupid and impossible. Cinema is always the present. Old mistakes are today's failures. History is always now. That's what the Spanish writer Unamuno used to call the tragic sense of life. Horse Money will always play in an everlasting present.
The song “Alto Cutelo” by the band Os Tubarões is extraordinary. How did you discover it and how did you hit upon the idea of using it to score a montage of immigrants posing in their homes for your camera?
Os Tubarões (The Sharks) were quite famous, probably the greatest of all the bands of the African nations that were colonized by the Portuguese. Of course they were admired by all the African immigrants: they made them sing and dance and they sung their tragic condition in the most epic way. We had already used a Tubarões song in Colossal Youth. When Ventura is ill in his wooden shack with his comrade Lento and plays an LP on his pickup, the song is “Labanta Braço,” an homage to Amilcar Cabral, the mythical freedom fighter, the founder of the Republic of Guinea and Cape Verde. This sequence is probably what's left from the project I had with Gil Scott-Heron. That film would have been a two-hour prayer or a rap, a lament...
The shot of Ventura leaving the hospital is beautiful and cathartic but it is followed by a more ambiguous shot of him looking at knives in a display window. Is this latter shot a reference to Fritz Lang's M and why did you choose to end the film this way?
Let's say Ventura comes out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He's ready for action and he needs a weapon. He's bloodthirsty. I didn't think about M but perhaps you're right mentioning Mr. Lang: his films always reminded us that cinema has a lot to do with justice. Our films should avenge.
Your use of depth staging has always been impressive. Now that Godard has proven it can be done inexpensively, would you consider making a movie in 3D?
For now, I've enough real problems with 2D to be bothered with imaginary ones.
Horse Money screens at the Siskel Center on Friday and Tuesday at 6pm. You can find more info on the Siskel Center’s website here.