Sep. 26, 2012 - Issue #884: Strangelove
Paradise lost ... and found
Tabu is a gorgeous, seductive homage to oral storytelling
Directed by Miguel Gomes
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Phantoms in the African veldt, a melancholic "intrepid explorer," a haunted crocodile: these are the enchanting ingredients of a film watched by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in the opening moments of "Paradise Lost," the first part of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' gorgeous, seductive and strange Tabu. Pilar is in her 50s; she lives alone in an apartment complex in Lisbon. Her neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral), is in her 80s, seems to be suffering from dementia, indulges in gambling binges, recounts elaborate dreams featuring monkeys and is paranoid and abusive toward her stoic African housekeeper Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso, so memorable in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth).
When Aurora's health takes a turn for the worse, she asks Pilar to track down an old man whose name she's never mentioned before: Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). Pilar finds Ventura, and Ventura tells her a story, something that happened 50 years ago, in an unspecified African country, involving he and Aurora. Enter Tabu's second part: "Paradise." Young Aurora (Ana Moreira) is married to a wealthy expatriate, becomes pregnant with his child, but falls in love with young Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a moustachioed, womanizing drummer in a band that specializes in Phil Spector covers and for a time found it profitable to play private gigs for the Portuguese colonial elite—Ventura wants Aurora to be his baby, but she's about to have someone else's. Riddled with decadence and desire, "Paradise" is as rapturous and fevered as "Paradise Lost" is meditative and methodical, embracing elements of silent melodrama, literary monologue and pure montage: there is no audible dialogue, but we hear select sounds, along with a dreamy piano score, and are guided through all of it by Ventura's wearied memories of doomed love.
Appropriating the title and reversing the diptych structure of FW Murnau's 1931 south seas romance, Gomes' third feature is stunningly photographed, formally fascinating, critically engaged with history and unspeakably moving. It premiered at Berlin, where it won the FIPRESCI and Alfred Bauer Awards and was nominated for the Golden Bear, and it was one of my favourites at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had the opportunity to speak with Gomes. It is now getting a well-deserved full theatrical run, courtesy of Metro Cinema.
VUE WEEKLY: What was the initial inspiration for Tabu?
MIGUEL GOMES: Someone in my family told me about her neighbor, a senile old woman. She had a strange relationship with her African housekeeper. Some of the scenes in the first part of Tabu come directly from stories told to me by this relative. In this first part there is no mention of Africa; it's almost a hidden thing. You see some masks in Aurora's house, but she never talks about Africa. Africa is the taboo of the first part, this colonial past. It exists in the Portuguese society nowadays, but it's underneath, in the social subconscious.
VW: Given the nature of the second part—the nature of the story and especially of the storyteller—it makes perfect sense to me that African characters are largely relegated to the background. But I wonder if this was ever a concern for you, telling an African story in which black Africans play what is largely an accessory role.
MG: I wanted to make something like a ghost film, a ghost film about an extinguishing society, dead or on the verge of being dead. So we have these white people having fun and killing each other, and at the end of the film, at the melodramatic climax, Africa takes over. Literally. The Phil Spector songs disappear and you hear only African music. From that moment on all the white characters disappear. One of the problems I have with fiction about colonial times is that it is too often didactic. I need to tell a story with the confidence of knowing that people have some sense that the colonial system was unjust. Tabu in any case makes very clear that something is wrong. This guy is making parties, playing Russian roulette—the people are kind of deranged. I don't have to spell it out for you by having a guy beating an African kid or something.
VW: Every act of ostensible intervention in Africa undertaken by the Europeans in Tabu seems either ineffectual or doomed, whether it's Pilar and her activism, your intrepid explorer, who just seems to be searching for a place to die, or the lovers, who seem to have sealed their fate to some degree by coming to Africa in the first place. It's like a curse.
MG: Yes, though I think these are different things. Pilar's activities don't go very far. She can't fix the world and neither can Obama; neither can the stupid politicians that are in charge nowadays in Europe. But this curse that you have in the explorer story and also in that of the lovers ... I made this film-within-the-film at the beginning of Tabu romantic, almost baroque, as a way of signaling what we will eventually return to later.
VW: I admire the structure of Tabu very much. Did the structure itself helped galvanize the project?
MG: Honestly, filmmaking for me is so organic that maybe I'm lying when I try to answer these questions. The script was in the garbage can by the midpoint in the production. The second part was improvised. We knew that we'd have these lovers, that Aurora would be at this plantation, that she would get pregnant—we knew the basic story, but we couldn't shoot the scenes we'd wanted to for lack of money. We created a smaller group from within the original crew, which was already very small, and we called ourselves "the central committee." The job of the central committee was to come up with something like a menu of scenes. Like in a Chinese restaurant: "Number 122: Pool Scene." It was very abstract. They actors didn't know what any of this meant. We simply proposed activities, and made up scenes all the time. So I can say that from the beginning there were two parts, working with oppositions: old and young, loneliness and love, everyday life and a very cinematic life, dialogue and the absence of dialogue. We had that structure in place, but how it progressed to the final thing came about largely through the process of making it. Ventura's voice-over in the second part, for instance, was only conceived during production. I worked with my co-writer and my editor at the same time; we would edit what we'd shot while at the same time writing and reading out the voice-over.
VW: That's so interesting, because Tabu ultimately feels like an homage to oral storytelling. Ventura's narration changes everything. I think of that scene where Aurora and Venturea are hiking in the jungle and then stop and gaze directly at the camera. You feel as though the young Ventura is looking at the old Ventura as he tells his story.
MG: You're a very good viewer. I enjoyed having Ventura tell his story in this kind of strange way. It's suggested that he might be a little senile too. He tells the story like it was in a book. In a way it's like he's speaking to himself. Or to the viewers. You don't know. But this idea of oral storytelling also comes out of having Santa reading Robinson Crusoe. I guess in our lives we have a need for stories and romance. So the second part of the film feels like a gift to the characters in the first.
VW: Ventura doesn't really enter the film until after Aurora dies, so in a sense it's like he's taking the baton from her.
MG: He's reinventing Aurora. At the start she just seems like this old woman with Alzheimer's, probably not very interesting. Then she becomes a starlet, a character from an American film or the '40s or '50s. That was there from the beginning, the desire to take an old lady that no one cares about and then turn her into Katherine Hepburn.
VW: Which is part of what allows Tabu to give us both a generous dose of romantic cinema and a critique of romantic cinema.
MG: Yes. To have this fatigued world and this exotic world. It's nice to have both of those things at once, no?
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