Will 2013 see a film harder to sell than Miguel Gomes’ quietly brilliant Tabu? Shot in black and white in the same squarish 1:37:1 aspect ratio that in recent years has framed both Andrea Arnold’s revisionist Wuthering Heights and Kelly Reichardt’s laconic feminist western Meek’s Cutoff, Tabu is in summary a difficult film to endear to non-boffin contemporary viewers. Quite apart from the deceptively mundane surface elements of its story — essentially, three middle-aged-to-elderly women in modern day Lisbon navigate recent retirement (Pilar, played by Teresa Madruga), impending senility (Aurora, played by Laura Soveral) and domestic servitude (Santa, Aurora’s Cape Verdean housemaid, played by Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) — is the unusual fashion in which Tabu’s retrograde design extends to its soundtrack.
While The Artist scored a popular hit last year by aping silent movie tropes, at heart it shared more with the exuberant entertainments of Hollywood’s golden age, like Singin’ in the Rain. Not so Tabu. Gomes’ film (his third, following 2004’s The Face You Deserve and 2008’s beguilingly sui generis Our Beloved Month of August) is a swoony yet paradoxically unsentimental meditation on memory, nostalgia and colonial guilt, improbably pervaded by a winning absurdist streak. It’s a rich and immaculately conceived fin-de-siècle of sorts that parallels the abrupt end of the Eden of youth with a murky chapter in Portugal’s past, and in which the impulse its characters feel for fiction and romance actually influences the form of its hypnagogic latter part, a poetic recount of (young) Aurora’s (Ana Moreira) youth in Portuguese-colonised Mozambique. As Gomes puts it himself, “White people just having fun, playing Out of Africa and looking completely unaware of any political issue.”
In this, the second of Tabu’s two distinct halves (the first is captioned ‘Paradise Lost’; the second simply ‘Paradise’, a cue borrowed from the film’s F.W. Murnau-directed namesake, 1931’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas), dialogue is foregone in favour of an exquisitely literary voiceover track and an expressionistic sound mix devoid of all but a smattering of judiciously elected diegetic noises. For Gomes, this was an effort to recapture a time – both historical and personal – when cinema’s power to transport and convince was near absolute. “Cinema has now had more than 100 years of existence,” says Gomes. “The innocence viewers had some years ago is lost nowadays. People have seen more and more so they have all this memory of other films. This innocence is something that I would like to pursue, to regain something of this kind of wonder of watching a film and being completely amazed by the things you see. Maybe there is a connection between childhood and cinema, because while watching a film or while you’re a child, you believe in things you cannot believe nowadays.”
Addressing Tabu’s split narrative format and central thematic contrasts (past/present, youth/senescence, fact/fiction, memory/imagination, naïveté/guilt, etc.), Gomes says he aimed to depict present day Lisbon as a place haunted by the sensation that “something went wrong”.
“First, you are in a post time – post-colonial, post-youth –because [the ‘Paradise Lost’ segment] is about old age,” says Gomes. “The characters in [this] part are quite normal, they are not characters that ‘come from the cinema’. And I think normal people have the desire for fiction. So in the second part, literally it’s like a film that comes to them, with characters that look like characters of cinema, with rock bands and melancholic crocodiles and taboo love stories – everything the first part does not have. You get to see 50 years earlier all these white people having the time of their lives but maybe going too far – killing each other and doing stupid stuff. Like having a colony.”
BY GERARD ELSON
Tabu is in cinemas now.