Sunday, December 30, 2012
After Our Beloved Month of August, Miguel Gomes returns with Tabu, an engaging, provocative and poetic film set both in Portugal and in an un-named African location.
Bearing the same title as F. W. Murnau’s classic Tabu (1931), shot in black and white and taking place at least partly in a distant land, Gomes’ third feature film is divided in two distinctive yet complementary storylines. Whilst the first part, shot in 35mm and in the present time, portrays a society wallowing in nostalgia, the second part, shot in 16mm, goes back in time and plays with history, sound, the concept of linear narration, as well as the ideas of melodrama, slapstick, passion and tragedy. Both parts feature Aurora at two different stages of her life: an older Aurora regrets a past long gone while a younger Aurora dreams of a more passionate life. A virtuoso film, Tabu also offers a reflection on Europe’s colonial past.
Remembrance of Passions (and Follies) Lost, Says A O Scott in The New York Times:
The word melancholy occurs several times in “Tabu,” Miguel Gomes’s odd and sometimes entrancing new film, memorably at the beginning, where it is used (in a voice-over) to describe a Portuguese explorer making his wistful way through the wilds of Africa, haunted by ghosts and threatened by crocodiles. This poor, intrepid soul is a character in a movie that is watched by Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged single woman living in modern Lisbon. Her unadventurous, middle-class euro zone existence is melancholy in its own way. Like the explorer, Pilar is filmed in narrow-screen black-and-white, which casts a glow of nostalgic mystery over her everyday dealings with friends and neighbors.
One neighbor in particular: Aurora (Laura Soveral), a bossy, dotty old lady who occupies the apartment next to Pilar’s and whose periodic crises — usually arguments with her Cape Verdean maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso) — turn Pilar into a reluctant surrogate daughter. The triangle that develops among the three women of different classes and generations has a faintly Almodóvarian feel, but with sighing resignation replacing loud melodrama as the dominant mood. For almost precisely half of Mr. Gomes’s emphatically bifurcated story, we are in a cinematic reality that, while identifiably present tense, also evokes the soul-sick European art cinema of the early 1960s.
Long, vaguely philosophical conversations unfold in front of a stationary camera. Meaning seems to reside less in the actions or motives of characters than in the atmosphere that envelopes them. And then, all of a sudden, we are back in that era and at the same time in a more distant world of silent film and high-toned romance. The second part of “Tabu” recounts the passions and follies of Aurora’s youth, when she lived on a plantation at the foot of a mountain in an unnamed African colony.
In the opening scene of "Tabu," the latest film by director Miguel Gomes, we learn "you can run as long as you can and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart." This warning will haunt Aurora, a glamorous but mentally unstable elderly woman living in Lisbon whose servant and lonely neighbor are her constant companions.
Gomes ("The Face You Deserve" (2004), "Our Beloved Month Of August" (2008)) walks a tightrope between the present and past in his new two-part film; we find ourselves in modern day Lisbon and somewhere in the twilight of colonial Africa, on the fictitious foothills of Mount Tabu. The Portuguese are shown in crisp white attire, being served drinks by African servants and playing in cover bands as the empire crumbles around them.
Writes Scott Tobias in AV Club:
Paying homage to F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s 1931 classic about love and clashing civilizations in exotic paradise, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a striking pastiche of the kind regularly performed by Guy Maddin or Quentin Tarantino—and at least as obscurely sourced. Gomes lifts the bifurcated structure of the ’31 film and shows a similar interest in the exoticism and sensuality of a faraway earthly paradise. But his Tabu isn’t entirely about giving pleasure. It’s an eccentric, formally challenging experiment, with two halves that try different things—and to varying degrees of success—but together form something droll, mysterious, enchanting, and altogether singular. Like other great pastiche artists, Gomes has created a time machine to a cinematic era that never quite existed, so it feels simultaneously borrowed and new.
After a gorgeous prologue, Gomes settles into the first of two chapters of roughly equal length, both in different contrasts of black and white, separated by 50 years. “Paradise Lost” follows Teresa Madruga, a lonely middle-aged woman from Lisbon who gets an unusual request from her feisty octogenarian neighbor (Laura Soveral). Hospitalized and paranoid about the maid (Isabel Cardoso) who accompanies her, Soveral sends Madruga on a mission to seek out a man from Soveral’s distant past. Once Madruga finds him, the film enters chapter two, “Paradise,” set in colonial Africa half a century earlier, when Soveral’s character (now played by Ana Moreira) was the beautiful wife of a successful but dull farmer (Ivo Mueller). While pregnant with her husband’s baby, Moreira falls deeply in love with the dashing Carloto Cotta, and their forbidden love goes as far as fate—partly in the form of unrest among their African hosts—will take them.
'Tabu': Virtuoso Style Heightens Romance, writes Ian Buckwalter in npr:
Revolution can spring from the most personal acts. In Tabu, Portuguese writer-director Miguel Gomes spins a two-part tale examining love, loneliness and the power of memory. It starts in the present day but culminates at the start of the Portuguese Colonial War in 1961. The personal and the political are so hopelessly entangled that even the midcentury colonizers who populate the film's dazzling metafictional second half can't avoid influencing events — even when they are very much disengaged from colonial politics.
Before Gomes gets to the early '60s story that takes place at the foot of the fictional African mountain that gives the movie its name, he frames that story with a tale of present-day Lisbon. It concentrates on the middle-aged, unmarried Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and her relationship with her increasingly unhinged neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) and Aurora's maid, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso). Aurora regularly gambles away her allowance from her absent daughter, and in the days surrounding New Year's, she claims Santa is holding her prisoner and practicing witchcraft, and in the end begins babbling about crocodiles on her deathbed.
Pilar is spending the holidays alone, as a Czech exchange student she was to house bailed on her during a deadpan scene of deception in the airport that's as sad as it is darkly funny. Pilar spends time with an artist friend, cries as he snores next to her in a movie theater, and is eventually drawn into Aurora's unfolding drama, as Santa sends her on Aurora's deathbed errand to find an old friend. That friend is a man named Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who ends up relating to Pilar the romantic story of his past connection to Aurora.
Tabu is in black and white and presented in the boxy old academy aspect ratio of early cinema (the film shares a title with F.W. Murnau's final film, from 1931). And when the timeline shifts back 50 years for Ventura to tell his story, Gomes delves further into antiquated filmmaking techniques, making it into a semi-silent movie. Background noise remains but dialogue is inaudible, and the only words spoken aloud are Ventura's poetic remembrances of the affair he carried on with Aurora while she was pregnant with her husband's child.
An elegant, Africa-set melodrama isn't just for cinephiles, writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:
The latest feature from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes might look like a forbidding cinemathèque-type item. Actually, it's a gem: gentle, eccentric, possessed of a distinctive sort of innocence – and also charming and funny. Gomes has here something of Manoel de Oliveira's slightly stately deportment, and this is the kind of modern-day mystery of Lisbon that would might have interested the late Raúl Ruiz. There is plenty of deadpan wit and fun, and Gomes has Kaurismäki's love of musical interludes, bringing on a guitar band and just letting them play.
There are two parts, or three if you count the enigmatic prologue introducing us to a certain mysterious crocodile, which may or may not turn out to be the emblem or reincarnation of anguished love. In modern-day Lisbon, a devout middle-aged Catholic woman Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is concerned about her elderly neighbour, the fantastically cantankerous and imperious Aurora – Laura Soveral gives a tremendous performance. She has to be driven home from the casino because she has blown every cent she has on slot machines. It is an addiction which she has inherited from her father, and Gomes shows us that, for all her confusion, the addiction has given her a lively, shrewd sense of life itself being a gamble. In the film's next section, we flashback to Aurora's youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence in 70s Portuguese Mozambique and falling in love with handsome adventurer Ventura (Carloto Cotta).
Pick of the week: A hypnotic tale of doomed romance set in colonial Africa; "Tabu" is equal parts dream sequence and steamy romance, writes Andrew O'Hehir:
This season’s movies have been unusually obsessed with history, and especially its less savory elements. But of all these meditations on the past, perhaps none is as peculiar or as haunting as “Tabu,” the new film from young Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. You definitely need to have patience with this movie, because it opens – after a melancholy and mysterious prologue about a 19th-century explorer, a ghost and a crocodile – as a low-key art-house drama, in black-and-white, about the intersecting lives of three elderly women in contemporary Lisbon. That in itself is refreshingly unfashionable (Gomes has said he wanted to focus on the kind of women “nobody gives a damn about”), but it takes a while for the disturbing undercurrents in their story to open the portals of memory and take us back into a tale of doomed romance in colonial Africa.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a sensible and resolute woman of 60 or so, appears at first to be the protagonist of “Tabu.” When she’s not going on ambiguous dates with a burly, mustachioed painter (whom she clearly hopes will move beyond the platonic-friendship stage), Pilar tries to figure out what’s going on with her older neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has the look of a onetime glamour queen and may be losing her marbles. Aurora often seems to have a warm relationship with Santa (Isabel Cardoso), her African immigrant caretaker, but at other times she bombards Pilar with wild, racist allegations: Santa is a black witch, a sorceress, a servant of the Devil who has enslaved Aurora to the Dark Lord.
If the stoical Santa even notices this, she makes no comment. We never learn anything about her life story – or Pilar’s, for that matter – but the details are suggestive, and gain new resonance as the story develops: Santa attends night school, reads a simplified translation of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and rescues Aurora when the latter has gambled away all her money at a casino (apparently not for the first time). It is the flighty, almost intolerable Aurora whose African past we will enter, after Aurora, sensing that the end is near, sends Pilar in search of a man called Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who sits in a car with Pilar, tears in his eyes, and narrates the entire second half of the movie.