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A still from Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money”

The history that underlies and often possesses Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, the final entry in the director’s Fontainhas tetralogy, is almost ironic — more than two decades in, Costa’s project has outlived its subject, the titular Lisbon slum now demolished by the Portuguese authorities. In the absence of the place itself, Costa has returned to his collaboration with the non-professional performer known as Ventura, a former fixture of the former neighborhood and perhaps the only person more obsessed with it than Costa himself. No one would accuse their creation of bearing its paradoxical existence lightly. It’s a jagged, tenebrous whatsit of a movie, skirting the contours of the horror film while perversely abstaining from the genre’s grim hallmarks. Yet Costa has always been more interested in transforming pain than documenting it, and while Horse Money offers little in the way of absolution or edification, it’s also a strikingly beautiful and touching work, no less invested in human fragility than institutional rot.

Costa’s mature style was forged after his experience making 1997’s Ossos, the first entry in the Fontainhas series, left him dissatisfied with the way the large production had disturbed and distorted the neighborhood. Returning with a miniscule crew — sometimes just himself — he worked painstakingly with non-professional local performers to write and rework extended scenes, pushing toward gnomic extremes of literary and compositional stylization while remaining grounded in his subjects’ material existence. The resulting film, the 170 minute-long In Vanda’s Room (2000), eschewed the contrivances of documentary-style social realism in favor of an enigmatically heightened reality. Shot digitally and printed onto painterly 35mm, the film was a revelation — at once a teeming, Brueghelesque work of social portraiture and something unnervingly intimate.

The residents of Fontainhas were already being relocated by the time he made Colossal Youth (2004), known in Portuguese under the bitterly ironic title Youth on the March. The film marked Costa’s first collaboration with Jose Tavarés Borges, aka Ventura, a hulking Cape Verdean immigrant who arrived in Portugal not long before the 1974 Carnation revolution, the non-violent coup that delivered Portugal from dictatorship. The film follows him as he visits various acquaintances (including many of the subjects of In Vanda’s Room), scattered throughout both the slum and a block of antiseptically white new high-rises. Moving through the frame with otherworldly languor, Ventura is repeatedly borne back into a past that is being literally dismantled around him. Shot by Costa from stark angles, he appears larger than life and thereby somewhat spectral.

Costa is a cult filmmaker par excellence — not only because his films enjoy a small but ardent following, but because his adherents somewhat resemble an actual cult. To his supporters, Costa’s project is a monumental one: nothing short of an attempt to refashion cinema by rethinking filmmaking. His tendency to remake everyday speech as incantation and to light his performers like the subjects of religious paintings give his films a ritual feel, as do their nearly three hour runtimes. Certain aesthetes relate to the recurring denizens of the Fontainhas films with an intensity much deeper than a Comic-Con kid’s obsession with the spandex-people of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A still from Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money”

Not surprisingly, then, much of the discourse surrounding Horse Money has leaned heavily on the language of the occult. This starts with Costa himself, who titled his previous film, an extended variation on Horse Money’s climax, Sweet Exorcism. Indeed, Costa’s longstanding love for producer Val Lewton’s cycle of low-budget horror films has never been more apparent, both for their boldly minimal lighting choices (equally an artistic and practical matter — Horse Money contains no horses and was made for very little money), and for the implicit political radicalism in such Lewton films as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), both directed by French ex-pat Jacques Tourneur.

With Fontainhas long gone, the film finds Ventura inside some manner of mental institution. Costa’s asylum is a purely cinematic construction — it’s pretty much impossible to tell much about the space besides the fact that it’s cobbled together from disparate buildings, including a dungeon-like stone façade, a midcentury office, and something that resembles a police interrogation room. Moreover, Costa’s affinity for selective, high-contrast lighting has apparently reached a new level. Ventura and his comrades are often among the only things visible in the frame, their environs lost to inky darkness. Some of the starker and more angular compositions recall Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau in addition to Tourneur. Having worked so well to create an immersive sense of space in his previous Fontainhas films, Costa here forges a sort of institutional non-place, an empty holding area to be filled by projections of the mind.

Yet there are no demonic phantasms in Horse Money, and while the film might have the asylum setting and expressionist compositions of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Ventura is no madman. We might be caught in the rhythms of Ventura’s stream-of-consciousness, in which any barrier between past and present has disappeared, but his visions have a bracing reality — from a widow who whispers death certificates to an incident that happened around the time of the 1974 revolution, when Ventura got into a knife fight that left him with 93 stitches, forever remembered, repeated, and orbited. Even the film’s most fanciful moments have a threatening immediacy, such as a confrontation between Ventura, some soldiers, and a tank that simultaneously evokes American upheavals in Ferguson and Baltimore and the continued fallout from European austerity. For all its otherworldly beauty, Horse Money, like its hero, is never free from the reality of systemic racial and economic oppression.

So what are we to make of the film’s climax, in which Ventura at last does psychological battle with the voices in his head? Costa puts the action inside a cold, metallic elevator, the film’s most terrifying nether-space, as Ventura alternately is enthralled by and resists his memories and thoughts, as personified by a living statue of a “freedom soldier” from Portugal’s revolutionary coup. Lasting over twenty minutes, the scene builds gradually and unpredictably to a catharsis appropriate to its tragic theatrical conceit. Yet as the film’s enigmatic final shot attests, the sweet exorcism might not have been wholly effective. In the absence of ritual cleansing, we’re left with the memory of struggle.

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money is playing in selected theater across the United States.

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Daniel Witkin

Daniel Witkin is a writer, critic, and translator living in Brooklyn, New York. His interests include cinema. He was formerly based in Moscow, Russia.