It’s been known that a singular moment during a brilliant film can make you realize you’re watching something special, something that will be deposited into your memory bank with a very high interest rate. In Miguel Gomes’ third feature film, “Tabu,” this moment comes while you’re still getting comfortable in your seat. A film-within-a-film begins proceedings, in which we are introduced to an ‘intrepid explorer’ who, heartbroken over the one he lost, commits suicide and gets eaten by a crocodile. Then something strange happens, the narrator says: this crocodile adopts the melancholic state of the explorer and, as the film comes to a close, spends his time with the ghost of the explorer’s lost ladyfriend. Welcome to movie magic.
Charming, witty, beautifully shot and inexplicably captivating, “Tabu” (a salute to its namesake, F.W. Murnau’s 1931 classic), is split into two sections, beginning with ‘Lost Paradise’ in modern day Lisbon, where we see Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a kind elderly lady leading an ordinary life – an anomaly as far as cinematic subjects are concerned. It is her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), a woman losing her mind to old age and dementia, who preoccupies Pilar’s mind. Aurora, left to fend for herself by her daughter, lives with her servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso), whom she believes is a witch commanded by Satan to make her life miserable. Pilar, a devout woman who prays each night, keeps up with the current issues and participates in UN demonstrations, tries to help her neighbor in any way she can, finally tracking down a long lost part of Aurora’s past, a man called Gian Luco Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). The introduction of Ventura paves way for Part II, ‘Paradise,’ a transportation back in time to a Portuguese colony in Africa where a young and vivacious Aurora (Ana Moreira) lives with her husband and meets a young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) to offset a classic love story.
Technically profound in its admiration for classical cinema, “Tabu” is shot on 35mm (Part I) and 16mm (Part II) black-and-white film stock. These gorgeous grays give an indelibly endearing quality to the aesthetics, particularly the 16mm African-set segment which covers the screen in a veil of misty, dream-like grain. Magic realism in rapture. Gomes takes it one step further with the second part by having no audible dialogue (yet retaining all other sounds) which is meant to give, in the director’s own words after the screening, the ‘sensation of silent film.’ Unlike last year’s awards darling “The Artist,” which replicated the 1920s silent story down to the last inaudible prop, “Tabu” takes a more subtle (hence, in this writer’s opinion, more elegant) approach to its homage of pure cinema.
Another deliberate motif for the director is the idea of opposing forces. In many ways, the two parts that make up “Tabu” compliment each other by how diamtreically different they are: ‘Lost Paradise’ is filled with elderly people doing ordinary things in today’s world, worrying and discussing their worries, estranged by the indifferent youth around them. ‘Paradise,’ on the other hand, is all adventure and excitement during colonial times, a period that exists no more, with barely a person over 40 in sight. And, though accompanied by the poetic words and oddly entrancing voice of Ventura, there are no words in ‘Paradise’ – just emotion. And yet, the most forcibly opposing forces emerge as memory vs. time, and the effect it has on our memories, our past proving that a disconnected reality of the future can be a real nightmare.
“Tabu” won the FIPRESCI prize at this year’s Berlinale and has been claiming hearts at every festival lucky to have it. It’s one of those rarities when too many compliments are not enough and the recommendation to see it as soon as it’s near you cannot be stressed enough. [A]