Tabu begins with the strange story of a European explorer in Africa, haunted by both the crocodile that ate his heart when he drowned himself out of loneliness and the ghostly woman that this amorous emblem once belonged to. These drolly-played events and these lovers’ poetic repartee, earnestly absurd and woozily familiar to anyone who’s seen their share of classic film, is quickly revealed to be a short black-and-white film resembling a consciously stiff and cheeky attempt at silent-movie magic.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a pious and unfulfilled retiree, is alone in this theater and enamored with this film’s flimsy sentiment. Her introduction reorients us to present-day Lisbon as the title “Lost Paradise” grows out of her surrounding darkness to announce the tone of longing and melancholy pervading Portugal and this story’s constrained first half. This is a potently reflexive place for Miguel Gomes, Portugal’s cinematic necromancer, to introduce us to his own black-and-white film. His alchemy arises from deliberate and drastic tonal shifts, and in Tabu, this method will gradually transform silly flickering symbols of hungry crocodiles, possessed love, and jungle exploration from one-dimensional signifiers into succulent details of an actual love story rapturously rendered on a romantic scale that only literature or film can attain.
Pilar lives alone in a modern condo next to the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a hilariously stubborn woman suffering from dementia, and Santa (Isabel Cardoso), her immovable African caregiver who must keep Aurora from gambling away her remaining retirement. These three unrelated neighbors have only their loneliness in common that they’ve learned to fill by sharing leftovers, birthday cakes, and a watchful eye over Aurora’s antics and health. A foreign exchange student Pilar had arranged to stay with her fibs her way out of the commitment so she can stay with a boyfriend, a selfishly impassioned decision making the lack of passion in Pilar’s own lukewarm affections for a so-so painter all the more apparent. He pines for her attention with credulous declarations and mediocre modern paintings (of which Aurora has no qualms observing as out of place among Pilar’s more traditional and organic décor), and on a New Year’s Eve date, they will frequent her favorite theater again. This second film, its images undisclosed, will move her to tears.
In many ways, Tabu is simply about these private and moving moments, or rather, storytelling and its powerful hold over us in many forms: the films enjoyed by Pilar, the Robinson Crusoe book Santa reads for her Portuguese language course, and the relaying of an outrageous dream by the increasingly delusional Aurora. But most importantly is the tale told by Gian-Luca Ventura (Enrique Espírito Santo), the mysterious man from Aurora’s past introduced in the second and extraordinarily freehand half of the film. Gomes shifts his style and our orientation to the long-ago past with the title “Paradise” appearing over the expansive interior of Aurora’s estate at the bottom of Mount Tabu. A self-contained deluge of his memories, brimming with the savory romance everyone is wanting, unfurls without any dialogue, but only Ventura’s present-day voiceover to chaperon us.
Gomes presents their story not with techniques mimicking silent film, but with a careful lack thereof more closely resembling a beginning filmmaker with a new Bolex. Natural non-diegetic sound is used to fill in conversations a 16mm camera couldn’t record and the ghosting effect of an incorrectly loaded camera takes on a rare charm. All of this creates a marvelous sense of discovery in the natural world, reckless emotions, and a tale’s formative elements and endurance. The grandiosity and densely-layered tangents in Tabu make it feel like the novel Márquez never got around to writing or that maybe Hemingway scrapped as his desire for a woman kept persisting in between fraternal enterprise on an African mountain.
Tabu’s wide-ranging incantatory touches lightly conjure cinema’s past: masterful and frontal close-ups carry the spiritual weight of Bergman, frequent titles marking time recall the documentary collaboration between Murnau and Flaherty, the repeated use of Les Surfs’ “Tu Serás Mi Baby” (a Spanish cover of The Ronettes) evokes the home-movie innocence of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and the line “she had a farm in Africa” unleashes the similar nostalgic daydream of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. There’s a reason this past paradise comes second, for its hold is echoed in subtle traces within the settings, objects, and music encountered earlier in Lisbon to suggest a historical continuum to narrative, of which Gomes slyly demonstrates our instinctual participation in how mental pictures of spoken stories flesh out from our indelible memories, and of course, the movies and novels we’ve seen and read. Tabu is filled with these referential riches, a peculiarly new, immersive, and unforgettable experience steeped heavily in passion to satisfy a thirst we’ve long forgotten. Reacquaint yourself with the power of improvisation and cinema’s abundant roots that we and its characters can only remember or dream of, crocodiles and all.
Tabu screens this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings ONLY at the Boulder International Film Series. It will also receive a limited run at the SIE Filmcenter later this spring.