There is a myth persisting to this day that silence is simply the absence of sound. In this, the centennial year of John Cage’s birth, the composer’s fight to redefine silence still rages on, and has found one of its most eloquent articulations in Miguel Gomes’ new film "Tabu." It begins with the story of a devoutly Catholic human rights worker who struggles to understand her senile neighbor, Aurora, played with tragic precision by Laura Soveral. When death begins knocking on the door, Aurora screams, “There is blood on my hands!” The second half of the film then recounts Aurora’s days in a Portuguese colony in Africa, where she built a life with a successful husband, a beautiful home, and a crocodile before pursuing an affair with a handsome musician. Gomes describes the film as being split between two parts: first the hangover, then the drinking. It is in this past filled with reverie and treachery that a Cagean silence dominates.
The tryst between Aurora (the younger version played by Ana Moreira) and her musician, Ventura (Carloto Cotta), is more than sexual infatuation. The two genuinely fall in love with one another, though they realize all along that little can come of it. "Tabu"'s glance at the past is a melancholy gaze, fearful of pricking old wounds but intoxicated with youthful, reckless beauty. The camera lingers over bodies wrapped up in, and enraptured by, one another. But, when the scene settles on conversations between lovers or spouses, more often than not their voices cannot be heard. The idea that a film cannot adequately represent the banality of intimacy, and is therefore better off removing the sound of their conversations, is not a new one. In Gomes’ capable hands, silence is no longer a crutch; instead, it provides the structure of the scenes. To speak of Gomes’ moments of silence, however, is to speak of Cage’s silence not as it is heard now, but as it was heard before he became an institution.
When John Cage first premiered his landmark work "4'33"" in a Woodstock concert house, the audience was treated to a piece that was as much performance as it was music. The pianist for the night, David Tudor, opened and closed the piano cover at the beginning of each of the three movements, but never played a note. Over four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the sounds normally held to be extraneous became the composition’s material. Cage’s silence did not dampen sound; it was simply transparent, allowing non-musical (or unintended) sounds to enter the work when it was normally excluded.
This transparency, particularly when the subjects and audience are not aware of it, governs the scenes between Aurora and Ventura. In one of the most illustrative instances, the two sit down by the pool where she keeps her crocodile. Maintaining a sense of propriety, she has the refreshments served outside while her husband is away. Even then there is a hint of desire playing across their faces, but whatever they say to each other is lost to memory. While their mouths move mutely, everything else can be heard and, because language has been lost, the most inconsequential noises are magnified: a pebble carelessly tossed in the water, fabric rustling against bodies, a shoe scraping against stone. Sound, freed from its duty to communicate, offers meaning on its own terms. All the mundane aspects of the world suddenly contain great import, much in the same way that lovers levy the full weight of nostalgia upon the minor details of their memories of one another.
This band of Portuguese friends, amidst all their hopes, desires, and rivalries, remains a group of rich colonizers. Living in a villa, they are largely removed from having to witness the crimes to which they contribute. Eventually, the world refuses to be kept at bay and word spreads that a revolution is brewing. Even then, the war only enters their lives in fits and starts. Rather than consider their position as wealthy colonials or even commit fully to fighting for their atrocious enterprise, they create patrol groups. In their downtime they set up targets and practice marksmanship in gatherings that resemble Sunday picnics more than military training. They cannot take reality seriously and instead play at being soldiers. War is something that creeps in during the quiet moments, reduced to reports on the radio. When blood is finally shed, it is not because of grave and mass injustices, but more private sins. Still, "Tabu" is not afraid to equate the two, since in the depths of the hangover Aurora can still feel the blood on her hands.
Blair McClendon is currently studying art history at Columbia University, while working in and writing about film. He firmly believes that the Mothers of America should let their kids go to the movies. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.