In many ways, Horse Money is truly indescribable in words. Like many artistic genres such as music and painting, in which if the artist can fully express what he/she wishes to express in words, it would not have been necessary to do so in their musical or pictorial form in the first place, what Costa may wish to express in Horse Money can only be expressed in the film as it is, as completed and in that sense, something which has become independent of what Costa might have intended, something which has a life of its own, linked to but separate from Costa.
Costa's latest film has no clear conventional narrative form and no "story" to speak of. It's more like a series of nightmarish images where its protagonist Ventura, almost always alone, reflects upon what matters emotionally to him in his past: how he worked for a telephone company which went bust, how he as a black immigrant worker was hiding amongst the trees in the hills of Fontainhas above the city in fear because a revolution took place (we know that something happened in 1975 at the Jardim da Estrela in Lisbon, Portugal but exactly where and when that incident took place is deliberately left vague in the film), how the other people who knew him looked for him there;, how in an abandoned factory, Ventura tried to speak to someone on an obvious non-functioning telephone line, how he later wandered in the city naked except for his underpants and was confronted by an armored car and several soldiers with machine guns pointed at him on an unknown road in the dark and how he was interned in an underground prison-like mental asylum, how he had a fight in which he received a near fatal blow on his head which required 96 stitches ( which might have been the cause of his being sent to the mental asylum?); how he was brought to the mental asylum by the MFA, the Revolutionary Army which started the so-called Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974; how he met another fellow worker there, his god-son, who did not get paid when the factory got bust was still waiting for his wages in that ruin after 20 years; how he had to endure a daily injection of some unknown medicine; how the only people he ever met were a fellow inmate and his doctor and how he was once visited or imagined that he was visited by a group of black people who urged him to "confess" to a mysterious crime that he may or may not have committed and how every time he appears on the screen, his hands were shaking uncontrollably; how he met another inmate's wife Vitalina who returned to Lisbon from his homeland Capa Verde for her husband's funeral but was assured that in fact, her husband is still alive ( if so, is he the guy whom Ventura fed just before he left the mental asylum, he apparently being the only other remaining patient in the film that we can see); how she read out the letter her husband wrote her and the the details of her birth certificate showing her ethnic origin, tears running down her cheek; how despite his trembling hands, he would make a real effort to feed another inmate who appears unable or unwilling to feed himself in a huge dimly lit and empty dining hall.
The most remarkable feature in this film is an extremely long sequence close to the end of the film showing how in a lift beside an immobile soldier holding a gun in his hand whose body was painted like those performance street artists who had their face, their body and their clothes painted in a silvery metallic color and standing in a fixed posture, Ventura "conversed" with him and how the voice answering to the questions about various episodes in his past life did not necessarily belong to that immobile soldier who could be a captain of the army during the "revolution" but could be from any of the other emotionally important figures in his past; how in this "internal dialogue" happening inside his head, we learn that at 17 he was refused work because he was too young; how he sang song about freedom with his old friends and fellow countrymen and how his life is linked to the revolution then taking place. Is that long sequence supposed to be a kind of exorcism of his past in which long suppressed memories of painful experience in the past must, according to Freudian theory, be confronted in the present when they first see the light of day through rational recall and questioning and analysis? If so, then after living without seeing the sun for I don't know how many years, moving always in and out of long dark corridors, long dark stone stair cases and thick ship-hold stye metal doors lit dimly by some sparse neon lights, Ventura first saw the light of day as he seen off the entrance of that mental asylum by white robed doctor because he was declared "cured" but where we see him still walking, zombie like, though no longer in his pyjamas but in shirt and overcoat, with a dazed look on his face going to we don't know where.
I do not really know what Costa is trying to do in this film. Perhaps he doesn't either. Perhaps he is trying to re-create the picture of hell? Perhaps, he is trying to depict the condition of existence of certain groups of people in the modern world, people not in the mainstream of that world or perhaps the life of some of such people who went through a particular phase in our recent history in their country. If so, where is that country? When did all those things happen? Perhaps it is only the subjective life of one particular individual in that world. The opening images showing certain tenement buildings in the early 20th century New York inhabited mostly by poor immigrants suggests that the film may be about the life of the black immigrants. If so, is the black immigrant a symbol of all other people living at the margin of society and not being fairly treated? There is a picture of a black man which transforms into the face of Ventura, which begins to move. Is the picture Costa he presents in the film objective? Is it subjective? Is it real or is it imagination? Is it the web of "reality" in which the two are inextricably linked? Whatever the truth, if any, may be, all we know for sure is that we have been presented with certain very striking images of people who seem frozen in time, alone, and even when together, seldom truly "interacting" with each other in the conventional way, with a certain narrative coherence and certain definite purposes, and truly "communicating" in a meaningful fashion, confronting their world. If we may rely on such images, which have obviously been carefully composed so that the human figures therein look like those from a Renaissance master painter like Caravaggio or even a Rembrandt, careful always about where the side light is coming from, images of loneliness, of desolation, of despair, even of horror, a world that appeared frozen in time because there seems little movement: the camera seems fixed, non-moving with neither zooming in or zooming out and even when the Ventura is moving, he is shown moving in a mechanical way, his eyes fixed upon a certain non-specific point in front of him which seems to remain always at the same distance from him, as if he were a sleepwalker. If so, he is sleepwalking in a nightmare world of his subjective memories or half-memories. .
If there are any links to all the images which connect them into some semblance of a "whole", some "pattern of meaning" , the links are certainly not linear, not chronological, not vertical nor horizontal: they connect on the level not of time or causation but of space, but if so, it's the space of the justapositioning of motifs, of similarity of themes; of desperation, of desolation, of loneliness and lack of hope. When the film ends, we are shown a row of knives neatly displayed one beside another in what appears to be a shop window. Is Costa suggesting that the only "solution" or "resolution" of the problems posed by what's portrayed in his film, violence or another revolution, like the one which sent Ventura into the mental asylum in the first place? Or is it a suggestion that Ventura could never quite forget his past although he is officially declared to be sufficiently "cured" from his trauma in the past to enable his discharge? What about the title of the film "horse money"? Could Dinheiro (Portuguese word for "money") be a reference to name of the horse ( "cavallo" in Portuguese) Ventura had in his homeland which he asked Vitalina about and which she told her had been "torn by the vultures" or the way immigrant workers are exploited by their boss for the sake of money or both?
The film is a strangely haunting film done with a slow, almost leaden rhythm, as the pace and of Ventura as he trudges along in his pyjamas with dazed eyes. Very little action at all. Just static images which move slightly from time to time. Certainly not for those who are accustomed to or want their film images moving once every few seconds like those one finds in Rimbaud-type films amidst the sound of sputtering machine guns .