Again with the animals. Notices for Miguel Gomes’s previous feature, 2008’s Our Beloved Month of August, frequently saw the Portuguese director likened to the fox framed in the film’s opening scenes: thoughtfully circling the chicken coop of his subject (the summer rituals of a rural mountain community), slyly looking for a way in. Gomes’s latest also prefigures an allegorically over-determined predator: a crocodile. But it doesn’t stalk, plot, or ensnare anything so much as it drifts, wide-eyed in a pool. Is the crocodile Gomes himself? Is it, as Mark Peranson suggested in Cinema Scope, Portugal itself? Both seem likely, or at least plausible. The creature bears silent witness to the colonial history that constitutes the emotional heart of Tabu. Call it the croc’s-eye-view of history.
The film is split into two sections, “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise.” These are preceded by a fantastic prologue in which a wandering European holidaymaker decked out in colonial khakis wallows in his own melancholy, as the indigenous help scuttle around him. The scene suggests the hazy amnesiac wistfulness of Guy Maddin by way of Ernest Hemingway.
Exquisitely shot in 35mm black and white, “Paradise Lost” unfolds in present-day Lisbon. Marooned by a Polish backpacker whom she was meant to accommodate, the forlorn Pilar (Teresa Madruga) develops an interest in the goings on of her quarrelling neighbors, the gambling-addicted, dementia-riddled Aurora (Laura Soveral) and her stoic housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). When she’s not being enlisted to retrieve a busted Aurora from the casino, or attending tense parties at the old lady’s apartment, Pilar goes to the cinema, involves herself in U.N. protests, and casually deflects the affections of a doting painter (Manuel Mesquita). As an on-screen countdown to the new year closes in, Aurora’s condition worsens, and she ends up in the hospital. As a final deathbed favor, she asks Pilar to track down her former lover, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo).
Here, Tabu totally, and somehow entirely effortlessly, shift gears. Over coffee, Ventura tells Pilar and Santa of his and Aurora’s forbidden love affair, 50 years ago, at an estate at the foot of Mount Tabu in Africa. So begins “Paradise,” shot (no less exquisitely) in 16mm, and unfolding entirely without dialogue or sound, save for Espírito Santo’s voiceover, and a few sparse foley effects deployed to accent the deeper quietude.
This second section is in some respect an evocation of silent cinema. It’s true that Gomes’s film borrows its title, and its bifurcated structure, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 tale of Polynesian romance captured and colonized by European interests. But as carefully constructed and purposeful as it is, “Paradise” never seems like an exercise in formalist nostalgia. Or rather, it never seems like it’s just this. Gomes’s dovetailing of love lost and decaying empire, the collision of lust and Old World conceit is the stuff of romantic poetry, or of Neil Young lyrics (just a different kind of romantic poetry, anyway).
With no diegetic dialogue, Tabu’s latter section comes alive in the beautifully scripted voiceover, the stark performances by Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta (as lithe, fresh-faced embodiments of the younger Aurora and Ventura), the effectively poppy use of a Portuguese-language cover of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and in a sex scene so weightily impassioned that it’d seem a glaring anachronism, were Tabu merely an atavistic aesthetic workout a la The Artist.
The pangs of romance, eroticism, anguish, and longing (both for the stolen moments of private passion and for the sense-making schematics of Empire) transcend any period of cinema Tabu may evoke. The film isn’t merely about memory and reminisces. It’s about their mediation, be it by the interventions of history, the elaborations of Ventura’s narrative, or the additional embellishments entering in Pilar’s interpretation; the recurrence of “Be My Baby” in both sections hints at Tabu’s second section being the conjuration of the lovelorn filmgoer, paradise construed through paradise lost.
With his previous features, the wacko comic fairy-tale musical The Face You Deserve and the meta-textual docudrama Our Beloved Month of August, it felt as if Gomes was up to something. Both these films exhibit the filmmaker’s rare, almost indescribable, facility for sustaining a tone even as it vacillates wildly. There was a smirking formal mischievousness at play, presenting the image of a director relishing in subverting expectations.
Tabu is no less playful. Nor inimitably original. After all, this is a film in which a sullen colonialist transforms into a reptile in a tone-setting prelude. This is a film that answers its hour’s worth of affectingly humdrum urban drama with a lulling, marvelous, deeply dreamy backend. Yet Tabu’s surrealism—like its romance, its comedy, its historicism, its everything—is retained with a light touch. For all its wistfulness, Tabu never feels like a formalist, postmodern, post-cinema put-on. Gomes never feels like he’s trying to pull anything off. And so, in turn, he manages to pull everything off. The smirk has softened into a gentle smile. Not even the crocodile grins.