In 1931 the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau and the equally renowned documentarian Robert Flaherty collaborated on a black-and-white narrative about a Tahitian pearl diver and his forbidden love called “Tabu.” It was one of the last great films of the silent era.
Last year Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes sent out on the festival circuit his own “Tabu,” a tribute of sorts to the earlier black-and-white film. The influences here are more thematic than stylistic and in any event the uncategorizable new film is an oddball to be sure.
The film, also in black-and-white, is divided into three sections. Yet only the last one really punches home the themes and emotions Gomes seems to be after.
An opening prologue, set in colonial Africa, has a forlorn and bearded white hunter in a pith helmet pushing doggedly into unexplored terrain as the ghost of his late wife haunts him. Unable to stand his existence any longer, he feeds himself to a crocodile as the natives dance.
I have no idea what any of this means. It may help to be Portuguese for Gomes seems to be equating that country’s tragic colonial experience with early cinema and perhaps a kind of naiveté about that traumatic past.
But on to the two major sections of the film, which reverse the chapter divisions of Murnau’s film. (Flaherty actually withdrew from the production after photography so it’s mostly considered a Murnau film by historians.)
“A Lost Paradise” recounts a drab tale in wintry, modern-day Lisbon of a do-gooding retired woman and devout Catholic, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) — first glimpsed, tellingly, in a cinema with a male friend — who worries about her elderly, gambling addicted neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral).
Aurora, who’s a bit batty, believes her African-Portuguese maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso) is practicing black magic against her. When she is hospitalized, she asks Pilar to look up an old man but by the time Pilar finds him it’s too late. Aurora has passed.
Over coffee, the old man, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) then recounts the story of Aurora as a young woman with a farm in Africa at the foothill of Mount Tabu. This is part two, called “Paradise.”
In this section there’s no dialogue at all. Instead narration is provided by the Gian Luca although ambient sounds and music (some characters are members of a rock band) can be heard. The story is one of illicit love among colonials on a 1970s tea plantation in Africa (presumably Mozambique).
This is familiar stuff, of course, but in this section Gomes brings the passions and yearning alive in a way that is most touching. Other than voiceovers from old love letters, you never hear the actors and that somehow, mysteriously, makes things that much more poignant.
Young Aurora (a sensual Ana Moreira) is happily married, an accomplished big-game hunter and even pregnant when she meets the dashing Italian Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta). She can’t help falling madly in love. Nor can he with her.
This plays out with the melodrama stripped away as much as possible to focus on the mad passion. The native population is on the verge of rebellion against its colonial masters but this too is mostly kept in the background.
It’s never clear, however, since Aurora’s husband died many years before and the two now inhabit the same city, why the lovers chose to remain apart. Or to be accurate, why Aurora never broke her vow not to see Gian Luca again.
So a tale of doomed love is bound up in a pictorial essay on colonialism and cinema as if this is all somehow a product of the characters’ collective history.
Like I say, it’s an oddball film without much concern for the usual dramatic devises a filmmaker would employ in telling such a tale. The film is shot in the classic Academy ratio on black-and-white 16mm stock although the Lisbon section is shot on 35mm.
The former is sunny and warm, with d.p. Rui Poças lovingly capturing the rural setting, while the modern-day urban scenes tend toward gloomy cityscapes of drab architecture and underpopulated spaces.
“Tabu” is pure art film. Yet Gomes, a former film critic turned auteur, throws in a few in-jokes for cinephiles. In one aside, it is said that Aurora was an advisor on an imaginary Hollywood movie called “It Will Never Snow Again Over Kilimanjaro.”
The movie bombed. Deservedly so with a title like that.
Opens: January 25, 2013 in Los Angeles (Adopt Films)
Production companies: O Som e a Fúria/Komplizen Film/Gullane Filmes/Shellac Sud in association with ZDF/arte and Radiotelevisão Portuguesa
Cast: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Henrique Espírito Santo, Carloto Cotta, Isabel Cardoso, Ivo Müller, Manuel Mesquita
Director: Miguel Gomes
Screenwriters: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo
Producer: Luís Urbando, Sandro Aguilar
Director of photography: Rui Poças
Production designer: Bruno Duarte
Costume designer: Silvia Grabowski
Editors: Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes
No rating, 118 minutes