Today our Nick Pinkerton goes long on the remarkable Tabu.
Directed by Miguel Gomes
Screens Sunday, October 14
This has been an unusually exciting New York Film Festival, but even still, the programming tends to accommodate itself to recognizable categories, like faces in someone else’s yearbook. Even as the works themselves hopefully render such limiting descriptions insufficient, we can still identify The Indisputable One, The Swinging For the Fences One, The Well-Meaning But Boring One, The Not-Very-Nice But Boring One, The Return to Form, The Falling Off, The Costume Prestige Piece, and so on.
Tabu, the third feature film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, goes down as a None of the Above movie, a What Was That? Movie–and also a Best of Fest. Shot in black-and-white at Academy ratio (the 1.33:1 of pre-Widescreen, pre-television movies, little utilized in theatrical releases today), Tabu is self-identified with the cinematic past, though as contemporary as any such emotionally-direct work must be.
Endowed with a rare level of both world and film-historical consciousness, Gomes has borrowed his title from a 1931 Paramount film, the fruits of a seemingly ill-matched collaboration between F.W. Murnau (Sunrise), the supreme artist to emerge from silent-era German expressionism with its sublime artifice, and Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North), the father of ethnographic documentary.
Like its namesake, Gomes’s Tabu is a divided between two sections, “Paradise”/ “Paradise Lost” (though inverting the order), as well as divided between the presiding spirits of Murnau and Flaherty–seemingly opposites, though both dedicated in their way to recapturing man’s innocence, something very much at the heart of Gomes’s masterpiece of faux-naiveté.
This Tabu begins in the bush, with a prologue depicting a pith-helmeted European explorer marching through Africa’s savannah; a narrator explains that the subject’s motive for entering the jungle is not thirst for knowledge or glory, but rather flight from heartbreak (“Intrepid he is, but out of desperation…”), a relation of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. After witnessing the explorer’s death and resurrection as a melancholy crocodile, we cut to a fiftysomething woman, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), huddled alone in a movie theater in modern-day Lisbon–not the last and certainly not the least narrative leap that Gomes will make. Following Pilar out into the real world, Tabuproceeds as a deadpan comedy, outlining the margins of its subject’s quietly unhappy life.
In a painful, funny scene, we see Pilar being shirked off under false pretenses by a Polish backpacker who was slated to share her apartment. We watch Pilar inserting herself into the ongoing psychodrama between an elderly gambling-addict neighbor, Aurora (Teresa Madruga), whose worship for the absentee daughter she never sees is only equaled by her suspicion of the black housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), who’s her constant companion. Pilar’s concern with their affairs and indifference to her own echoes a professional devotion to human rights causes, a calling only set aside for chaste day trips with the single male painter friend who vainly pays her court: “Sometimes I regret that I haven’t stepped on an African mine just to get your attention.”
When Aurora is suddenly rushed into hospital–ignored by her daughter, tended by Santa–she requests that a mysterious “Gianluca” to be brought to her bedside. Gianluca arrives too late, but after Aurora’s funeral, at a mall café cloaked in tropical foliage, he begins to narrate the story of his relationship with the deceased. This narration is the entire spoken portion of Tabu‘s ‘Paradise’ section, an extended flashback which occupies somewhat more than half of the movie, and from whence the narrative never returns.
While the subject matter–the colonial legacy–is serious, Gomes’s style is light, brisk, deceptively frivolous, somewhere between that of silent home movies narrated by the one who filmed them and Hollywood ethnographic kitsch of the Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack variety–for these are home movies imprinted on the emulsion of the mind, double exposures where a pop dream of “Africa” has encroached on the real thing, conflating Mozambique and a pre-Code Hollywood backlot.
Aurora is here reintroduced as a young and very beautiful Ana Moreira, daughter of ruined European gentry in an unnamed African colony who marries a tea farmer, settles in the shadow of a mythical “Mount Tabu,” the repository of all local legend, and whiles away her days big-game hunting. Aurora’s escaped pet crocodile introduces her to a young neighbor, Gianluca, played in the 16mm-shot flashback by Carloto Cotta, who breezes through his youthful career of empty affairs before lighting out for Africa: “A new world free of gambling debts and love troubles.”
In this salubrious climate, where a scoundrel might be reborn a gentleman and ardent lover, Aurora and Gianluca give in to a smoldering mutual attraction. The tale of their forbidden love unwinds through a pattern of anecdotal digressions from which, taken altogether, one can clearly predict impending banishment from the colonial Eden, as the household cook whom Aurora dismisses for sorcery claims to read entrails. Fringing the elder Gianluca’s tale are illegitimate children, rumors of distant Arab caliphates toppled by Socialist revolution, tense boozy parties around the stagnant pool at the home of neurasthenic father-and-son bachelors, empty rainy afternoons spent playing ping-pong with the houseboy, and the clubby formation of white militias to tamp down the foment of native rebellion–a perfect opportunity for Aurora and Gianluca to slip away for an afternoon rendezvous.
Matching the destiny of an entire colonial endeavor which affected millions to one star-crossed affair may seem blithe to some, but it’s entirely in keeping with the film’s theme of rueful old age regarding careless youth, true to the rule whereby former thoughtless confidence giving way to shameful regret. Aside from this, the film’ bifurcated sections carry on a conversation whose subject is something on the subject of misdirected: Aurora’s doting on her daughter while abusing the helpmate who is her only true friend; Pilar’s Mrs. Jellby-like preoccupation with the far-off less fortunate which allows her to overlook her own misfortune; Aurora’s loveless attachment to her husband.
It’s heartbreaking stuff, but Gomes weeps no crocodile tears, sustaining a wistful pop optimism. His film’s beat is set by the Madagascar group Les Surfs’ ’60s cover of “Be My Baby,” heard in both of the diptych’s halves, and the Phil Spector-produced Ramones rendition of Spector’s own “Baby, I Love You” is heard issuing from the band in which Gianluca sits in on drums, whose single, we’re told, would become “A cult object for its rarity and simplicity”–a fair prediction of the future in store for Gomes’s work of sophisticated primitivism. (Nick Pinkerton)
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