In recent years, the notions of memory, nostalgia, and identity, and the various ways they have changed and adapted through the times, has become a prevalent topic in the art world, especially in music and film. In this influx of concerns about the past and our increasingly complicated relationship with it, the aesthetic makeup of classic silent films has begun to show its face once again in popular filmmaking. Canadian director Guy Maddin, for instance, has made a career out of playfully tackling modern psychosexual issues through the aesthetic of silent avant-garde films. Meanwhile, of course, 2011’s The Artist, which took a relatively straightforward story and mixed the novelty of silent era filmmaking with the modern sensibilities of gender roles, even took home a handful of Oscars. Miguel Gomes’s Tabu makes use of this once arcane aesthetic in an even more novel and exciting way, using a bifurcated structure — its first half shot in present Lisbon and the second half 50 years earlier in Africa — to tease out these aforementioned issues through the dialectics of past/present and dream/reality that are created by its creative narrative structure, wildly inventive use of sound (and lack thereof) in its second half, and the various other contrasts between its two parts.
Tabu (named in honor but not a remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name) begins with a brief but memorable prologue showing a traveler in Africa who is visited by a ghost of his past lover, whose continued haunting presence leads him to drown himself. This passage establishes both the setting of Africa, to which we’ll later return, and the sonic methodology present in the second half (all dialogue is muted, while singing, diagetic and nondiagetic music, sounds of nature, and the romantically philosophical voice over by Gomes himself are heard), as well as the overarching thematic concerns of obsessive love and the eternal pain that results from its extinction.
The film then abruptly shifts to Part 1, entitled “Paradise Lost,” which follows Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a retired woman who concerns herself almost solely with the problems of others, offering lodging to Polish girls traveling to Lisbon, hanging a friend’s painting on her wall every time he comes over, and, most explicitly, keeping a careful eye on her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose neglectful daughter has left her in the care of her African servant, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso). Aurora is lonely and disconnected, and she often jets off to the local casino to blow her monthly allowance. When, since she had no money for a cab home, Pilar and Santa pick her up after her latest fiasco, she describes a dream that made her believe she’d have wonderful luck at the casino, so she had to give it one more try, otherwise she’d regret it forever. She ends the anecdote saying, “People’s lives are not like dreams,” perfectly encapsulating the first part’s dreary, morose tone, with its world-weary characters struggling to simply get by in an emotionally cold, urban locale.
In this first act, Gomes subtly and deftly lies out the film’s thematic concerns — isolation, regret, the disconnect between dream and reality, identity and projection, and the wounds that memory and nostalgia can carry with them, even if only latent — but it is once Pilar and Santa discover the existence of Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), an elderly man who is supposedly no longer sane, and the film transitions to Africa when Aurora was a young woman, that the pieces of the first act begin to accrue meaning and the film’s methodology takes shape.
In Africa, young Aurora lives a carefree life as a spoiled white girl with a caring, successful husband and is known as the most talented big game hunter around. With the entrance of Ventura, a handsome playboy extraordinaire, the flames of illicit love begin to crackle and the two begin a torrid love affair. The aforementioned techniques used in this part of the film, particularly the soundscapes playing against muted dialogue, give the characters a feeling of disembodiment that reflects both the two lovers’ states as they enter and proceed with their obsessive affair and the sense of dislocation and disillusionment as Ventura nostalgically recounts the tale he’s revealed to no one for 50 years.
The tragic end is laid out for us in the beginning, though how it plays out is quite original, especially given the setting, and Gomes puts such a unique stylistic spin on the age-old tale of tragic love that it is still a wonder to see it unfold. He has described the second act as the party after the hangover, and he subtly plays the two sides against each other, showing the far-reaching consequences of Aurora’s doomed and tragic love affair. The trio of Aurora, Santa, and Pilar in the first act is, in essence, a symbolic representation of the after-effects of Aurora’s post-Ventura days. Their combined sense of melancholy, disconnection, and social and geographical displacement functions as the cost of the sins she committed in Africa, with the near-eternal state of stasis in which the three women remain feeling a bit like purgatory on earth.
Miguel Gomes is able to convey complex feelings and emotions that are made palpable through rich textures of sound — Ventura’s band playing 60s pop tunes; African chants and songs; and the sounds of water, wind, and even footsteps have the quality of a half-remembered dream, enchanting yet creating a sensation of impermanence. This lucid dream feels real, yet its inevitable end is known, fated. This sonic experimentation is further strengthened by subtle symbolism (the recurrence of an alligator is both comical and haunting) and lush, expressive visuals that incorporate the styles of silent films yet retain an unique, sustained otherworldly feel. Tabu is strange, powerfully evocative, playfully experimental, and truly one of the most beautiful films in recent years.