Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes heralds the new year of cinema with a bold film approaching masterpiece greatness. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring mostly silent action dominated by voice-over narration, Tabu also features an unclassifiable narrative structure. Though romance is at heart of this film, Tabu vibrates with life beyond a love story. Gomes is interested in working beyond cinema’s narrative techniques by calling attention to them and then pushing story beyond straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative to offer something grander and more self-reflexive. The director’s work recalls other cinema pioneers interested in exploring the edges of the art form, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and his fellow countryman, the late, great maestro Raoul Ruiz.
As Ruiz did with his final masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ peels away layers of story to reveal infinity), Gomes is interested in capturing the other lives many people have a chance to experience in their mortal moment on this planet. He does so by presenting the viewer with distinct episodes of the life of Aurora. Laura Soveral plays old Aurora as she approaches her twilight in Lisbon. These are the days in her 80s, as she approaches hospitalization. They are filled with a perceptive range of naïve wishful hope but mostly paranoia and bitterness seething with an unshakable awareness The End approaches. Then there are the days she lived in Africa. The younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a sensual being full of life, freshly married, hunting (she never misses) and making a cuckold out of her nameless husband (Ivo Müller) all while she carries his child.
But dividing Tabu into two sections is not enough for Gomes. He sets Aurora’s story up by offering a brief but colorful introductory tale, and then later, another character, Aurora’s pious, patient and solitary friend Pilar (Teresa Madruga). The first story unfolds in that place seething with so much life: the jungle. The film opens with an explorer decked out in cliché pith helmet and khakis following African men taking machetes to the thick brush. The explorer takes careful, methodical steps as the men of that land tangle with the brush for him. A voice-over (Gomes) explains the explorer’s mental state. The voice uses ornate language indulging in melodrama to explain this explorer’s misery and melancholy. A piano plays a shifting, dramatic score, as in a silent film, as his guides confront the savage land while he follows behind. All the while, the narrator emphasizes this explorer’s despondency while explaining the loss of this character’s wife. In the end, the adventurer takes dramatic action to join his wife and chooses suicide by crocodile. The savages break out into a song and dance. Then, an apparition of his wife appears sitting next to the crocodile. The melding of life and memory becomes part of the land that carries on. The surreal notion of a ghost haunting a crocodile that has eaten your lover captures the utter romance of these mortals while also showing how insignificant they are to the (comparatively) immortal land. It offers a twisted joke that sets up a film, which will end in nothing short of idealistic romance.
This first narrative is then revealed as a movie. Gomes makes a wild, dramatic shift reminding the audience they are in the theater by introducing Pilar gazing right into the camera in an empty movie theater in present-day Lisbon. After she has experienced her dream within dreams on the screen, this is now to be our waking dream, and the layers of dreams, fantasy and memory all play key roles in this film. Often movies are made as distraction from our lives. However, Tabu spends much of its time telling stories within stories within stories that enforces the artificiality of life on the big screen. Despite that, Tabu still manages to magnify the verve of our own knotty existence on this planet, which, the film often reminds us, has its own power to create and extinguish life.
A title card introduces this section with Pilar as “Part I: Paradise Lost.” It follows her, as she heads to the airport to pick up a young pilgrim who was to stay with her. Instead, a friend of this young woman in short shorts and a backpack meets Pilar to tell her that she will not be coming. The dialogue has a dry quality, enhanced by the stilted use of English, as the young woman is Polish and her common, shared language with Pilar is English. This manner of speaking, the notion of a mystery lodger who never arrives and the way this messenger from another country turns and walks away once again feels surreal. With its black and white cinematography and this jarring behavior of the actors, Gomes recalls Maddin or even David Lynch. In fact, Gomes loves to reveal what lies in the dark in a gradual way that will seem very familiar to those who have seen Eraserhead. This visual referencing to the unconscious is unmistakable.
However, Gomes is not interested in using dreams as narrative. He actually seems to subvert the notion. When he introduces old Aurora she is telling Pilar about a dream. As they sit and talk, what appears to be a treadmill with baggage, heavily blurred out in a short depth of field focus, trudges along in the background, giving the illusion that these sedentary older women are always moving. Aurora describes a dream of seeming nonsense where she battles monkeys who have invaded her house. During the fight, one of them morphs into the form of the deceased husband of a friend of hers and begins to talk to her. She notes that even though he talks, she is always haunted by the idea he was a monkey, and he sometimes behaves like one even in human form.
This glimpse into Aurora’s unconscious could illuminate how she regards her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), who she says is trying to poison her with voodoo. It also may reference her alleged experiences living in Mozambique as a young woman, which will not be revealed until the second part of the film by a man who may be an unreliable narrator. But before this recalled life appears, Aurora is revealed to have a bad gambling habit. Though Aurora tells Pilar that a dream showed her how to bet and beat the house, she admits, “People’s dreams are not like their lives.”
Aurora does indeed seem a character uncomfortable in her dying skin. Her daughter never returns her calls, and she doesn’t trust her only caretaker. “They want me dead,” Aurora says with a loaded sense bitter acceptance. When Pilar finds Aurora’s phone in her refrigerator, it is indeed a sign of not only her approaching senility but her giving up on the rules of this mortal world.
Gomes toys with perceptions constantly. Though Aurora seems to only treat Santa with paranoia, both Santa and Pilar are up to seeking out and bringing back a man Aurora mentions on her death bed: Gian Luca Ventura. It would seem this was Aurora’s true love. Though he too seems to have lost his mind, this is the man who will so vividly tell the second half of Tabu, taking place sometime 50 years earlier, when a younger version of he (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora shared an intense affair in the heat of the jungle. When old Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) speaks, he again enhances what Aurora said about dreams not being like life. However, Gomes indulges in this fantastical second part of Tabu with poetic whimsy. The lush black and white cinematography and intimate academy aspect ratio constantly enhance the filmmaker’s utter delight in the medium, beyond the relevance of whether this story may be true or not. Through the staging of the action, costumes and period music that includes a Portuguese version of “Be My Baby,” the viewer cannot help but feel swept away.
Gomes is still not above showing a sensitive awareness to the limits of both cinema and memory when it comes to dialogue in this last hour of the film, however. There is none. This story of Young Aurora and Young Ventura is all told in a voice-over narration by the elder Ventura, who makes no effort to reproduce the exact words between the characters, even though we still hear sound effects and music. Instead, though the actors’ mouths move in many scenes, no one ever utters a word. It’s as if the actual words exchanged were lost in time, and all Ventura can muster are the ideas of what was said, adding to the haze of this “memory.” It’s probably truer to memory than most other alleged memories, however, because of this vagueness. But this is also a defiant statement against the cynicism of today’s idea of film trying to make everything seem so “realistic” with digital effects and 3-D, inviting the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of cinema and its classical techniques found in editing and image alone.
Throughout Tabu Gomes reveals a keen awareness of the limits of cinema and how embedded the memories of dreams are in the structure of the art form. From his choice to omit dialogue in the film’s last hour to the manner he frames the opening and closing of a door in an early scene, as if the door’s action is a wipe cut, do not call anything Gomes does in this film shallow or superfluous. Ultimately, Gomes makes no more a poetic choice than to feature much of the action in Tabu in the wild of the jungle (albeit through the eyes of invaders trying to tame the land by bringing their comforts of home there, from music to swimming pools). However, there exists nothing more primal and awesome and humbling a thing than the living landscape of the jungle, a grand symbolic stand-in for the unconscious. With Tabu, one should prepare for an intense journey into the primal as Gomes masterfully exploits the narrative elements of cinema to transcend the limits of story-telling. With Tabu, Gomes raises film to the art form it deserves to be.
Tabu is in Portuguese with English subtitles, runs 118 minutes and is not rated (though this is a film for adults). It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. and plays through Jan. 23, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review.
Up-date: Tabu also premieres in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale, Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. and plays there through Jan. 24.
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)