Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dir. Miguel Gomes
3.5 out of 5
Tabu, a black-and-white mood piece from Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, is really a tale of two films. The first is the journalistic chronicle of Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged spinster living in a Lisbon apartment complex next to Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman whose growing dementia takes a toll on her neighbor and her long-suffering Cape Verdean housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso). Aurora's mental deterioration eventually lands her in the hospital, and a lyrical flashback to a young Aurora (Ana Moreira) living in one of Portugal’s African colonies in the 1960s begins after the woman's delirious ramblings lead her caretakers to Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), her old acquaintance. His narration forms the backbone of the second film, a dialogue-free reconstruction of the affair between the engaged Aurora and his dashing younger self (Carloto Cotta) in the foothills of the fictional Mount Tabu.
The movie's sharp narrative turn would be out of place if Gomes didn't do such a good job building worlds where happiness seems just out of reach, no matter the setting. Pilar's stark, lonely existence - she's jilted by the exchange student she is supposed to host and her only suitor is a mediocre painter who makes embarrassing professions of his love - creeps along until Gomes abruptly shifts into the lush exoticism of the film's African half. However, Gomes tends to over-think the aesthetic possibilities, attempting to weave some of the documentary realism of the Lisbon story into a dreamy fable of forbidden romance. The bits of mannered whimsy Gomes ostensibly uses to characterize the lovers also reveal more about his own nostalgic biases - she's a legendary big game hunter clad in pith helmet and khakis, he's a guitar player in a British Invasion-style quartet. Though neither of these details add much to the main thrust of the story, they do help create the intoxicating sense of mystery that keeps Tabu more intriguing than frustrating. It's monotonous, but it’s poetically monotonous.
Given that most viewers will be surprised to learn that Portugal clung to its overseas colonies until the last quarter of the 20th century, it's disappointing to see such an intriguing historical setting act as little more than a backdrop to a florid melodrama. (I like to imagine that the movie's uniformly stone-faced Africans are performing a kind of judgment on this fanciful dalliance.) Still, Gomes finds plenty of ways to signal a looming sense of doom outside of the geopolitical context. He's especially obsessed with the many crocodiles that wander onto the estate of Aurora's fiancé, a wealthy but bland industrialist. Though Gomes may get his visual and narrative wires crossed several times, it's hard to ignore the sparks created by his conflation of decadent bourgeois bedroom politics and the strict natural laws of the primordial jungle. It's an approach that creates a special atmosphere - equal parts languid and tense - so effective that it occasionally turns idleness into something gripping and vital.