PRINT October 2012


Miguel Gomes’s Tabu

Still from Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, 2012, 16 mm and 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 118 minutes. Left: Young Ventura (Carlota Cotta).

Every landscape is located nowhere.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

AN UNPREPOSSESSING WHITE MAN—bearded, wearing a pith helmet, and identified as a “melancholic creature”—stands alone in the bush at the center of the screen. Where is he? Where are we? A woman materializes—a projection of the nowhere-man’s past. African tribesmen watch as the explorer stands by the riverbank and (offscreen) jumps in to be devoured (also offscreen) by crocodiles, so we’re told. Cut to a frenzy of tribal dancing possibly cribbed from a 1930s travelogue, followed by a nocturnal shot of a “sad crocodile,” jaws agape, lying in the grass near, a camera pan reveals, the mysterious woman “from days gone by.” Finally, we see a solitary female spectator in a near-empty movie house. Thus begins Tabu.

The third feature by Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, Tabu is so filled with unexpected pleasures it could restore your faith in the medium—indeed, the most striking attribute of Gomes’s cinema is its denial of categories. Our Beloved Month of August (2008), a sprawling two-part movie about a group of filmmakers who attempt to possess a particular location in rural Portugal, was neither a narrative nor a documentary, even less a fusion of the two. Tabu is another hybrid, a pair of nested stories, taking its title, theme, and something of its structure from the strange collaboration between mise-en-scène-meister F. W. Murnau and documentarian Robert Flaherty.

The 1931 Tabu is an exotic romance, at once naturalistic and imaginary, set in a lost realm; shot silent in the South Pacific, it was released with synchronized, grandly inauthentic musical accompaniment. The new Tabu is also exotically time-warped. “It’s a film about things that are extinguished,” Gomes has said; the movie is purposefully archaic (shot in 16-mm and 35-mm black-and-white, using the old-fashioned Academy ratio), dispensing with synchronous dialogue midway to maintain a shifting combination of voice-over, music, and selected sound effects. Like the original, Gomes’s Tabu is divided into parts identified as “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” although Gomes inverts the order to begin in contemporary Lisbon, hanging with the middle-aged idealist Pilar (the perpetually worried-looking Teresa Madruga).

A practicing Catholic and devout, if depressed, movie watcher, Pilar attempts to help her elderly, increasingly addled neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) through the final days of her earthly existence. Other characters appear: Aurora’s stolid Cape Verdean attendant Santa (Isabel Cardoso), a young Polish tourist, and an old and untalented painter who is perhaps in love with Pilar. The space is deep and lovely, the performances are drolly stilted in the deadpan manner of midcareer Fassbinder, and there’s no narrative arc until Pilar is sent, at Aurora’s behest, to find the mysterious Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). She locates him in a nursing home, just a bit too late—fittingly, for a film so purposeful in its anachronisms.

After Aurora’s funeral, Gian Luca tells Pilar and Santa a story that he begins by paraphrasing the first sentence from Out of Africa: “Aurora had a farm in Africa, at the foothill of Mount Tabu.” Now we are returned to Paradise—or at least the paradise of European settlers in Africa. (“An indeterminate historical territory reinvented for a film called Tabu,” per Gomes.) Dialogue disappears or is, perhaps, subsumed by desire. The beautiful, willful young Aurora (Ana Moreira), pregnant by her tea-planter husband, initiates a reckless affair with her new neighbor, Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta), an Italian adventurer who somewhat resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

Their doomed relationship, played out over a few months, has its oddball features. The catalyst is Aurora’s pet crocodile—a gift from her husband—secretly named Dandy. (Dying in Lisbon, she invokes the creature in her delirium.) Gian Luca plays drums in a cover band that specializes in the Ronettes. Their poolside performance of “Baby I Love You,” with a gaggle of settler women dancing the twist, is a brilliantly imagined period touch—capturing the indolence and delusion of colonial life in the tropics. With Europe in the midst of another great transformation, this theme has recently resurfaced in movies such as Claire Denis’s White Material (2009) and Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly (2011), also inspired by the Murnau-Flaherty film. Tabu, however, seems less critique than simulated memory. Like, were we really ever there?

Aurora’s heedless passion, which proves inadvertently useful for the (offscreen) African nationalists in their burgeoning revolt against Portugal, has its correlative in the movie’s rampant yet casual cinephilia. Nothing is forbidden. Tabu is rich with narrative fillips; its sound track is a model of adroitly managed bridges and substitutions. There’s an idea, or at least a gesture, in nearly every setup. Gomes creates and tosses off all manner of economical special effects—a shot gratuitously taken through a rain-streaked window, a passage of interpolated amateur filmmaking, a bit in which the lovers see animals literally outlined in the clouds.

Everything passes, nothing is held too long. Still, the recurring close-ups of Dandy the Sad Crocodile, always centered on the creature’s primordial, unblinking eye, serve to reiterate one vérité—the brute fact of mindless, devouring existence.

Tabu makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival on October 14, before arriving in theaters in December.

J. Hoberman’s new book, Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso in August.