December 27, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


Miguel Gomes' third feature Tabu is as different from his first two (as yet, he has no recurring stylistic tics) as it is from any other film this year. What it shares with 2004's severely patience-testing The Face You Deserve (which prompted one interviewer to ask, verbatim, "what the fuck") and 2008's delightful Our Beloved Month of August is severe structural separation. The Face You Deserve morphs into a different movie after 20 minutes, while August playfully/evasively morphs from a quasi-documentary about itself to an overtly staged narrative halfway through.

The division in Tabu is less porous and more pointed. First, a prologue (narrated by Gomes) about a colonial expedition instigated "by order of the king and Bible," headed by a pith-hatted explorer. "Taciturn and melancholy, the sad figure wanders," Gomes intones in deadpan over images of the stone-faced explorer and his native bearers, a scene pitched somewhere between genuine pathos and parodic pastiche. The scene shifts to present-day Lisbon in late December. The first half's focus is the equally taciturn and melancholic Pilar (Teresa Madruga), on a mission to amend the sins of her national predecessors and the world in general. A lonely middle-aged activist, Pilar fills her time attending ineffectual demonstrations where the crowds yell "Shame on you" at seemingly empty government buildings and applaud themselves after completing a minute-long moment of silence.


Agitated by her inability to change the world, Pilar is even more concerned about next-door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose dementia worsens daily. Aurora is convinced her black caretaker Santa (Isabel Cardoso) is a devil-worshipping fiend sent to torment and kill her (a la the Church Lady, Santa equals Satan). "We should do something," Pilar tells Santa in concern. "Madam, I do as I am told," Santa replies, speaking in reference to Aurora's daughter who pays her bills, but also to her larger dispossessed situation. In this first half, Gomes does for Lisbon what Kleber Mendonça Filho did for Recife, Brazil in his recent Neighboring Sounds: identify systematic economic inequality and racial tension on a (literally) black-and-white basis, lurking within huge blocks of anonymous residential towers.

"She had a farm in Africa," Aurora's former lover Gian Luca Ventura (played in his youth by Carloto Cotta) intones, a parodic echo of Out of Africa (a deliberate invocation Gomes qualified in a recent interview by saying "not that I'm very interested in that film"). Throughout the first half, subliminal cues pave the way for the second half's relocation into the past. Vines hang from the ceiling of Aurora's apartment and trees populate her ex-lover's retirement home: the second half—a flashback narration of Aurora's African youth—is set up in a mall whose food court looks like a particularly humid forest hothouse. The steam rising from Santa's ironing board rhymes with steam rising from washing done by Aurora's laborers; past and present are visually connected, even before the narrative makes clear why.


In the second half of the film, the black-and-white, Academy ratio of the first half (which might initially appear to be a strong but somewhat arbitrary decision) suddenly makes sense as a frame for a silent movie, one set roughly 40 years after that medium's demise. It's both a double anachronism and present-day reclamation of lost techniques (with foley'd ambient sound, narration and music). By making use of silent cinema's ability to bring greater power to the expressive close-up, Tabu is an argument for the cinephilic necessity of watching older films and rediscovering lost techniques. "I think that there is the sensation of a whole bunch of films in my work, but I hope it’s not a cinema of quotes, of always quoting a certain film," Gomes has said. "I tend to make films that have the sensation of other films." There's a sense of dimly remembered '30s and '40s colonial outpost dramas in which the white man is courageous and the natives are restless, many programmers mashed up into one platonic whole.

The film is as beautiful as it is polemical: Gomes' exceedingly clever structure makes it impossible to separate politics and aesthetics. The point is that existence in any historical moment doesn't allow the luxury of opting out, even by choosing not to participate in certain acts. The story of Aurora and Gian Luca's affair takes place against the backdrop of excitable colonists getting out their guns to quash rebellion. In voiceover, Gian Luca explains that he and his lover were "indifferent to the fate of the empire," viewing the turmoil as excuse and cover to conduct their affair. But indifference is not the same as a lack of complicity, and Tabu's ingenious denouement demonstrates the impossibility of being truly non-political.

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Posted by ahillis at December 27, 2012 8:41 AM