I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight, but “Tabu” (2012) had me hooked from the very first shot.
Photographed in sun-bleached black-and-white, an intrepid explorer stands forlornly in the jungle, slump-shouldered and barely able to muster the energy to turn and watch as his African porters bustle past him. This sad-sack is Aguirre as a bookish professor far far out of his element. The narrator (Miguel Gomes, also the film’s director and co-writer) informs us that the man represents king, God, and country (Portugal, in this case) but that like all men he is ruled by his heart, the “most insolent muscle.” He is haunted by the ghost of his recently deceased love and decides to drown himself in the river either to escape or join her.
“Tabu” has been described as avant-garde or just plain oddball, but Gomes has taken a hoary piece of Hollywood advice to its literal extreme. Some screenwriting texts suggest that a script should begin with a “mini-movie” that summarizes the entire film, and that’s just what Gomes does in this six minute opening sequence. “Tabu” will be a film about a tragic romance, but also one leavened with a heavy dose of irony. After the intrepid explorer (that’s how he’s listed in the credits and he’s played by editor Telmo Churro) bids farewell to his African retinue, they observe his moment of profound personal sadness with a celebratory dance, unmoved by the fatal melancholia of the colonialist fool. The sequence ends with the image of the river crocodile that benefited most from the whole experience, and there’s nothing stopping you from reading both as a sad coda an a punchline.
We soon learn that this segment is actually a film being watched in an empty theater by Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged loner in modern-day Lisbon. Pilar is constantly taunted by the unattainable possibility of human connection. In a cruel but funny (I suppose “but” is the wrong conjunction) early scene, Pilar is supposed to play host to a Polish exchange student, but is roundly rejected when the student implausibly denies her own identity to wiggle out of the arrangement.
Eventually, Pilar gets drawn into a burgeoning mystery involving her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) and her African maid Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso). Aurora may be barking mad – she loses all her money by placing a bet based on a delusional dream that involves monkeys – but her complaint that Santa, in league with both Aurora’s daughter and the devil, intrigues the devout Pilar who is desperate to prove useful as a Good Samaritan. Just as Aurora’s plight intensifies, her health suddenly degenerates and she pleads with Pilar to find a man named Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). The handsome older man is taciturn at first, but once he starts talking he doesn’t stop until the film does.
Over a decidedly low-budget lunch, Ventura regales Pilar and Santa with one of the grandest (and longest) love stories ever told on film. Fifty years ago, a young and beautiful Aurora (Ana Moreira) lived on her father’s farm in Africa at the foot of Mount Tabu (a fictional mountain intended as a reference to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 landmark “Tabu”) where she became a famous equestrian and big-game hunter. Her happily married life is disrupted by the arrival of the dashing adventurer Gian Luca (Carlotto Cotta) who wins her heart, that most insolent muscle.
The second half of the film doesn’t contain a single moment of synchronized dialogue. Young Aurora and Gian Luca’s romance plays out as a series of tableaux narrated by Ventura (Santo’s mournful, melodic voice is a crucial organizing element here) with one section devoted to the young lovers reading an exchange of letters while they are separated for a few months. It’s possible the entire story is a fabrication by an aging Lothario seeking to burnish his romantic reputation; Ventura takes the time to introduce his “character” as having had an infamous affair in Paris with a Hungarian countess before his arrival in Africa. It could also be a fantasy projection by the dreamy, lovelorn Pilar.
All that really matters is that the film runs the entire emotional gamut with remarkable dexterity. Gomes packs just about every flavor into this movie sampler: laughter, tears, doomed romance, mystery, colonial hubris, cinephilia. And music. A vibrant piano number by Joana Sa imbues the opening sequence with energy and a gentle aching quality, and Phil Spector provides the popular soundtrack for multiple eras, both in Portuguese and Ramones-ese. “Tabu” just might claim the definitive movie stake on “Baby I Love You,” and as gorgeous as the black-and-white cinematography by Rui Pocas is, the film’s audio (musical and otherwise) is even more seductive than its visuals.
The synthesis of styles and techniques turns the film into a feature-length anachronism. It has a haunted, archaic look that nonetheless could not be mistaken as anything but a 21st century work, as if it was a recovered memory of something that never happened. Hard not to think Guy Maddin here even if Portuguese contemporaries like Pedro Costa seem like more immediate comparison points.
“Tabu” is intensely self-aware, perhaps to a fault. Anticipating a perplexed reaction from some viewers, Gomes (a critic before becoming a filmmaker) stages a scene in which Pilar describes a new painting given to her by a friend, “It’s modern… and weird.” It is certainly a movie about movies and functions both as a love letter and a farewell to cinema, consistent with the director’s unique gift for blending multiple tones. The film is shot in Academy ratio in black-and-white and both on 35 mm and 16 mm stock, and Gomes has admitted he saw it as his last chance to shoot on real, tangible celluloid. Describing young Aurora as being “bored to death” by cinema is probably an in joke from a man used to having constant conversations about “The Death of Cinema,” the navel-gazing obsession of contemporary criticism.
Of course, cinema really has died. But “Tabu” is just the kind of séance that keeps its spirit with us, and that’s OK because cinema has always been a mausoleum of sorts. Just don’t follow it to the river, oh intrepid cinephile.
The film is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Black-and-white photography this beautiful deserves a high-def transfer. Unfortunately, Adopt Films has gone the SD route here. With that limitation in mind, the transfer is pretty solid, though not flawless. Image detail isn’t razor sharp, but it’s fairly strong throughout. Surprisingly for a recent film there are a few instances of dust and debris evident, and I can’t attest as to whether or not that’s intentional. This SD transfer is perfectly fine, but “Tabu” deserves something superior.
The Dolby Digital Stereo track is clear though not particularly dynamic. The music sounds crisp and resonant and that’s what matters most here. Non-optional English subtitles support the Portuguese audio.
When I say there’s nothing, I mean there’s nothing. The menu offers only a Play Movie option, not even a Scene Selection choice. Chapter breaks are provided every ten minutes but you have to step through them with the arrows on your remote.
I have not seen either of Miguel Gomes’ previous features, “The Face You Deserve” (2004) or “Our Beloved Month of August” (2009), but I intend to remedy that situation as soon as possible. “Tabu” is absolutely mesmerizing, and I can’t believe I wasn’t able to secure a copy last year because it probably would have been my pick for film of the year. The DVD is no-frills and it’s a shame “Tabu” isn’t offered in high-def, but I love this film so much I’m delighted to have this solid SD transfer. “Tabu” is one of the best films of the decade so far. Kino Lorber and Adopt Films sure got their hands on a great contemporary release.