Director: Miguel Gomes
An Unclassifiable Filmic Objet emerges from the southern horizon, trailing ecstatic critical reactions and arriving in our more adventurous arthouses to beguile and bewilder. It is Tabu, third feature from Miguel Gomes, a 40-year-old Portuguese writer-director – and former film-critic – who first came to cinephile attention via his short films (1999-2006) and his debut longer effort, The Face You Deserve (2004).
The sprawlingly (over-)ambitious, meta-textually clever-clever and toe-tappingly music-themed Our Beloved Month of August (2008) then managed to stir a few ripples beyond the film-festival circuit, circulating on two dozen prints in France and even nabbing a one-week stint at London’s ICA. But it’s Tabu, co-written with Mariana Ricardo, which has really cemented Gomes’s reputation as the latest heroic export of the perpetually punching-above-its-weight Portuguese cinema, joining notables such as Manoel de Oliveira (still sprightly at 103) and Pedro Costa (53).
Like that pair, Gomes’ name is much more familiar to journalists and festival-programmers than it is to the general moviegoing public, even in his homeland. Tabu, however, may start to change that: there’s even been long-range talk of it emerging as a candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar, given last year’s success of Michel Hazanavicius’ silent-movie tribute The Artist.
While far from silent itself – the first of its two halves is very much a “talkie” – Tabu does pay heartfelt homage to earlier forms of cinema, and most of its second hour is entirely dialogue-free, relying instead on narration, music and sound-effects. This section, entitled ‘Paradise Lost,’ relates a torrid love-triangle unfolding in an unspecific African country (perhaps Mozambique) in the early-to-mid 1960s, the last twilight of colonial domination.
The points in the triangle are sensual huntress Aurora (Ana Moreira), her milquetoast husband (Ivo Müller) – whose name is never revealed – and her raffish, rakish paramour Ventura (Carloto Cotta), with Ventura’s band-mate Mário (Manuel Mesquita) also drawn into the circles of passion, deceit and intrigue. This story isn’t particularly complicated or remarkable in itself – what’s interesting is the way Gomes chooses to tell it, or rather the layers of storytelling he interposes between the tale and its audience(s).
Tabu‘s first half is an elaborate prelude in which we observe the now-elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral) living in haughty semi-seclusion in foggy, seagull-haunted present-day Lisbon, attended by her huffy maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso) and helped out by her middle-aged neighbour, Pilar (the movie-stealingly saturnine Teresa Madruga.)
Circumstances relating Aurora’s terminal illness lead the empathetically inquisitive Pilar to track down Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) and hear his version of events. Ventura’s narration is the only voice we hear in the second part of the film, and what we see is presented as Pilar’s visualisation of what she hears – her interpretation evidently coloured by the poetic, highbrow movies she watches in her local cinema.
Gomes thus weaves an intricate filligree of unreliable memory, romantic fantasy and rueful longing, lightly seasoned with cultural references – literary as well as cinematic – and filled with tantalising lacunae that leave almost infinite room for interpretation and speculation.
Shot on wistfully graceful 35mm monochrome in old-school boxy ‘Academy’ ratio, it has a distinctive look, sound and feel and exudes a quietly humorous, mournful charm (“echoes of lonely and excruciating growls” abound). The results amply repay more than one viewing, even if at heart it’s more of an elaborately whimsical jeu d’esprit than any kind of profound analysis of human fallibility or post-colonial psychology.
And while far from the instant masterpiece some were eager to acclaim following its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the Critics’ Prize but received only token honours from Mike Leigh’s main jury), Tabu is definitely worth catching on the big screen – particularly via the one 35mm print which British distributors New Wave are making available, in tandem with a larger number of the now-standard digital copies, and which will be showing at the ICA before a “mini-tour” of selected cities.
29th August 2012
written for Tribune magazine