Sunday, November 11, 2012


The rather lovely tone of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is set from the beginning, in a poetic voiceover prologue about a widowered huntsman in Africa, accompanied by a beautiful, simple piano piece, all dripping with that peculiarly Portuguese saudade.

A title “Paradise Lost” takes us to modern-day Lisbon, where Pilar (Teresa Madruga), in her sixties, has a deadpan hilarious encounter in a railway station. She has a neighbor in her eighties, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is a bit nutty (and ineffably stylish). She prays a lot, supports various humanitarian causes, and is constantly observed to be “kind” by various other people. Her relationship with Aurora and Aurora’s African nursemaid Santa (Isabel Cardosa) is nicely varied from the warmth to the prickliness of neighboring lives, and when the old lady is at death’s door, Pilar is asked to track down a Mr Ventura, known only from Aurora’s raving about her crocodile being in his house next door.

All this is shot in beautiful silvery black and white, but the photography really comes into its own (switching from 35mm to 16mm) in the second half of the film, as do the reverberations of the titles (F.W. Murnau’s dreamy 1931 silent). More than anything, however, the first half’s frequent recurrence of story-telling takes over. Like Gomes’ fascinating Our Beloved Month of August (2008), this is a film of two distinct halves, with a transition that is quicker than the eye. The switch here is an enchanting surprise, even if it is impossible to read or write about the film without reference to it.

We’re returned to Africa in the early ’60s, in the shadow of Mt Tabu, for a heated tale of passion in the tropics, familiar enough, but told here quite charmingly afresh. From the gentle, old-person pace of the first half, things pick up quite a bit, but Gomes imposes a different restraint: in an unusual and mostly successful move, we hear on the soundtrack the story being told in voiceover, and various diegetic sounds from footfall to wildlife, an airplane prop or a gunshot, but no dialogue. It’s a little disconcerting at first to see the lips move and nothing come out, as are certain “missing” sounds, like the splash of a swimming pool, but for the most part this works as a fascinating and beautiful conduit for the magic of silent cinema, cast in a new form, and a bittersweet lament for the inaccessibility of the past.

The other thing we hear is some marvelous native singing and, given Gomes’ fondness for amateur bands, the songs of the rather cool proto-rock and roll combo, playing Phil Spector songs in Portuguese, led by Ventura’s friend Mario, and featuring himself behind the kit. The guys are a great pair of rakish, adventurous young bucks, Ventura in particular (Carloto Cotta), with killer cheekbones, clear, bright eyes, and a dashing Errol Flynn moustache. It is as inevitable that he and the captivating Ana Moreira as young Aurora, the great white huntswoman, will get together, as it is that things won’t end well, but the moment of adultery comes suddenly and perfectly.

If elements of the first half feel a little irrelevant by the end, Pilar has at least provided an effective counterpoint of saintliness to the sin of the second half. The gentle tone of melancholic longing is consistent, however, the romantic mood epitomized by gorgeous net-draped interiors flooded with strong African sunlight, and swept along by the truly poetic writing of the voiceover: a magical, transportative film of deep feeling.

d Miguel Gomes p Luís Urbando, Sandro Aguilar sc Miguel Gomes, Mariano Ricardo ph Rui Poças ed Miguel Gomes, Telmo Churro pd Bruno Duarte cast Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta, Henrique Espírito Santo, Isabel Cardoso, Manuel Mesquita, Ivo Müller
(2012, Por/Ger/ Bra/ Fr, 118m, b/w)
posted by tom newth at

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