‘Tabu’ A Rich And Romantic Cinematic Treasure From Portugal
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 18:02
A melancholics anonymous meeting of intrepid souls adventuring across the grasslands of time, Miguel Gomes’ film Tabu teaches us how to live—that is, to hunt loss—within the elegant atmosphere of dreams. Shot on 16mm black-and-white film stock, it opens on an explorer in the time of Portuguese colonialism, roaming the African wilds—a man who, having lost his wife and child, ventures to escape the ghost of his love amid the threat of crocodiles. This poetical, enigmatic vignette serves as “Prologue” to the subsequent dichotomy between controlled contemporary concreteness and the antecedent animals of anguish.
“Part One: Paradise Lost,” is set in modern-day Lisbon, where we encounter a middle-aged Catholic woman named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) who effuses kindness though lacks any semblance of adventure in her sterile life of do-gooding, crowd politics, and isolated movie-going. Resident of the apartment adjacent to Pilar is the cantankerous and eccentric elderly woman Aurora (Laura Soveral) who lives with her Cape Verdean maid, Santa. Festering with magical-realism and the absurdist comedy that stalks human calamity, this portion of the film observes the effect that Aurora’s wild imagination and gambling addiction have on Pilar and Santa. They coddle and comfort the fierce spirit, amid cinematically rich shots strung with artificial foliage, potted plants, fur, floral, and feathered ornamentation. A morose staleness and, moreover, an anxious awareness of this stale state pervades. At Aurora’s request, Pilar and Santa get in touch with a man named Gian Luca Ventura. We then traverse the sea of temporality, 50 years backward, at the philosophical musings of this old acquaintance of Aurora—a recital of melodic memory ensues.
“Part Two: Paradise,” escapes to the lush jungle of youthful passion, into the exotic mystery of Aurora’s past. Now played by Ana Moreira, she is a smoldering heiress and a big-game hunter, like something out of an Ernest Hemmingway short story, living on a plantation at the fictional foothill of Mt. Tabu in an African colony—a sensuous land glittering somewhere in the twilight of Portuguese colonialism. As the newlywed wife of a wealthy young farmer, Aurora basks in a fantastically privileged life of stylish dresses and fashionable jewelry, surrounded by African servants and the draping, frilled comforts of transplanted civilization—“but her taste for adventure was merely dormant.” When Ventura (now played by Carloto Cotta), a gritty gorgeous social outcast, moves in next-door, they swoon madly into love and embark on a strikingly beautiful, hopelessly tortured affair.
This portion of the film contains no dialogue, only the wistful narration of the old Ventura, anchored in the reality of “Paradise Lost,” accompanied by the chirping, rippling, rustling sounds of nature, rhythmic African chants, an achy Portuguese-language version of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and dictations of the lovers’ letters—delineating those noises whose ambrosial origins defy time and the docu-fantasy fiction we all crave in songs, books, and cinema. This quasi-silent film effect elegantly reminds the viewer that the voices of our memories are whatever our current voices would have them be, and introduces the visible existence with those invisible things we project. An aesthetic rummaging through relics of the past for present meaning—it is an exercise in the blurring of history and fiction, artifacts and artistry, extinguished people, societies, and forms of cinema into the ageless continuum that is human passion. Evoking the virtue of highly controlled, stylized artifice in extracting genuine emotion, Tabu is like a Frankenstein with the stitches on display.
As “Paradise” slips away, Aurora requests of Ventura, “I ask you never to reveal the monumental crimes we lived together.” Altogether a singular and voyeuristic experience in a faraway locus amoenus, Gomes’ Tabu is a perfectly peculiar picture offering heart-cramping melancholy, golden age romance, seductive social satire, dry humor, a beatific soundtrack, and ubiquitous crocodile imagery—an edifying adventure for any diagnosed cinephile.