The Challenge of Beauty

Again, Pedro Costa returns to Fontainhas, the shantytown immigrant quarter of Lisbon he has mourned, taxonomized and brilliantly aestheticized in now four films celebrated around the world. The newest, the haunting Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), plays as though it's a nagging dream of post-urban Purgatory, 110 minutes of non-narrative exploration of abandoned factories and concrete tunnels, of a hospital escapee, in his underpants, rambling through ink-black woods until he's met with overwhelming military force.

The particulars of what's happening are never clear, but what matters always is: Costa again steeps us in a crumbling world, in anger and loss, in the alienation of an impoverished and marginalized life. Prepare to be harrowed by the lengthy sequence in which that rambler, now PJ'd, stands mostly still in a steel cell he shares with a living statue, an army man painted green in the manner of street performers. Voices hiss and whisper, sing and howl, about fascism, about Lisbon, about how if that soldier had killed black men, he might be a general now. Ventura, the hospital patient who may or may not also be dead or imprisoned, calls that soldier a “freedom trooper.”

Ventura is the name of the character, the actor and the film's apparent inspiration. A Costa veteran, this retired bricklayer from the real Fontainhas once again roams the cinder-block environments of battered slums. Costa situates him (and some other residents) in serene studies of demolition both literal and not: passing through the leaf-choked men's room of a gutted factory, hiding in the profusion of green weeds that has thrived untended, residing—one after another, in montage—in still-rentable apartments as bare and tight as the hollows in cinder blocks.

Costa has sometimes been criticized for making life in Fontainhas too beautiful in these movies—of offering film-fest crowds a high-art vacation with the poor. Yes, it's a luxury to have the time and money and access to sit in the dark and regard such images, to worry over them. But Costa's work, for all its beauty, is also always a prickly challenge, a demand that we take these people seriously, a reminder that it might be an injustice that so many live in such conditions, but also that beauty thrives outside galleries and arthouses.

In Horse Money—as in Costa's greatest achievement, Colossal Youth—the director works with digital cameras, but this time, he's also chosen the boxy Academy ratio, setting today's idea of the future of filmmaking in the frame of the past. As always, Costa is fascinated by light edging into darkness, by the seam between what we can see and what we can't, and these compositions confirm that, in the hands of a master, digital can rival film in terms of rich, suggestive, shadow-crowded murk.

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