Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes)

RECOMMENDED

Romance is subjective, but its effect on us really isn’t — in the sense that presumably everyone knows what you mean if you say that something has you under its spell. In the best of times, that something is a fellow human being, but just as often it can be a song, a poem, a painting, a film. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is about such emotional responses to art, to received wisdom and memory in general, and it effortlessly becomes a rollicking, seductive example of just what sort of witchcraft it yearns to reproduce. You almost can’t blame it for being not entirely successful — it so clearly, like few other films of our time, comes from someone’s heart that it deserves our forgiveness.

For my part, Tabu did a number on me enough that it’s been on my mind off and on ever since I saw it. I just don’t know if the reaction I can’t help having is really valid; in the face of the emotionally full content of the picture, it sounds so trite when I write it out. Basically: I was completely swept up in both the meditative compassion of the first half and the absolutely intoxicated romantic longing in the second, but I’m unconvinced that the two separate films — tenuously related as they may be — truly complement one another in any meaningful way. Note that I’m absolutely not saying this should stop you from exploring the film. If only for the giddiest and most wrenching moments it offers, it’s an essential experience.

Let’s explore what these two divergent sequences are, what they might mean. In the “Paradise Lost” sequence, three women — each lonely in their own manner — gravitate around a decrepit apartment building in Lisbon. We spend most of our time with the sad-eyed, well-meaning Pilar, who does her best to provide help to nearby Aurora, a compulsive gambler in her eighties, and her live-in caregiver Santa. Pilar is a kind person but some of her meddling in others’ lives is clearly to compensate for a gap in her own. She clings to one-sided friendships and sees movies by herself, her eyes marking a fierce emotional longing. Meanwhile, just before Aurora’s death, after all too many forbidden trips to the casino, she requests the presence of a mysterious old acquaintance, Gian-Luca. The entire film segues into a flashback prompted by Santa and Pilar’s curiosity about his identity and never returns, hence part of my reason for feeling a complete absence of closure with these characters.

But in the second part, simply called “Paradise,” the film ascends to the heavens, not unlike those that Pilar seems to be watching early on — maybe the entire flashback is really just showing us the events the way she must see them. At any rate, we now learn of Aurora’s early adulthood, when she was a hunter with great aim, fire in her eyes, a difficult marriage and a passionate love for a nearby rock musician — that would be Gian-Luca, of course. (The chronology is rather difficult to reconcile. Aurora is much too old in the first half to have been so young in the ’60s.) We get swept up in this sumptuous forbidden love story, which also involves an alligator and a locally famed lounge band tossing out lovely covers of Phil Spector songs. Truthfully, there’s also something mildly discomforting in the way that colonialism is romanticized here — but I’m almost positive that’s deliberate (witness the way that every black character is ruthlessly backgrounded in the back half). In the end, its air of fevered nostalgia and tragedy is a stunning testament to the way we remember our own lives, and our collective memory, and its yearning is enough to leave you flummoxed for a good long time. There’s fire and love in it, like some great novel by a tortured writer. That it’s rather cheesy only adds to the effect.

Again, taken separately, these are both beautiful pieces, but the 16mm Africa sequence (the entire film is black & white, but the modern-day sequences are shot with more up-to-date techniques) is stunning for its entire lovesick, surreal duration — and kudos for properly giving the Ronettes songs covered in the film the emotional fieriness they richly deserve. (In general, I think Gomes’ geekiness is a good match for mine; he makes noises about RKO flops and cult garage records, which means he speaks my language!) There’s so much in the protracted, tangential love story that made me feel elated and thrilled… but in the days to follow, I have to say that what’s stayed with me are the troubled, slightly hopeful but mostly desperately lonely faces of Santa and Pilar in the present-day scenes. The film seems to be building toward a further exploration of their inner lives and I wish they weren’t simply discarded, but perhaps I’m just missing the point of the structure Gomes employs here. At any rate, this is a film I’ll be thinking about and replaying in my head for a long time.

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