A two-part tale of romantic longing and illicit love, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu offers a very cine-literate yet inscrutable look at Murnau, murder and mystery.
Out Of Africa by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Apart from the name and its bifold structure of two halves, Miguel Gomes has borrowed little from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s original 1931 silent South Seas adventure. Murnau’s tale of illicit love, forbidden pearl fishing and foreign exploitation is transposed to ’50s colonial Africa and contemporary Lisbon. And, shot in black and white, Tabu begins with a comically short and particularly dejected looking Portuguese explorer standing forlorn in an African jungle while being overtaken by more purposeful sub-Saharan Africans. Narrated by the director himself, this prologue recounts the curious tale of a man whose legs were set on paths determined by either God or King, until upon the death of his wife, combining duty with a wandering heart, he roams the earth to escape his painful memories. It’s an enigmatic opening of ghostly women and melancholic crocodiles, set to a piano score evocative of the silent era, which casts a spell over the entire film, both Paradise and Lost Paradise encapsulated within this heart of silent darkness.
This prologue turns out to be a film watched by Pilar – the hero of Lost Paradise, set in contemporary Lisbon in the days between Christmas and New Year. Christian do-gooder Pilar goes about her business, picking up Polish Catholics from the airport who make up excuses not to stay with her, while keeping an eye on her live-wire neighbour Aurora who regularly winds up at Casino Estoril, gambling away the little money her daughter wires over to her from Canada. Aurora’s Cape Verdean maid ups the post-colonial ante – the mistress believing Santa is practising voodoo against her, while the domestic’s sardonic distance from her employer’s goings on remains an unspoken refusal of the intimacy and friendship arising from such longstanding service. Pilar meanwhile goes to the cinema with a male painter friend, and while she cries during the film, he falls asleep. Pilar, on the other hand, has little interest in his passion – modern art, only ever hanging the painting he gifted her when she suspects he might pay a visit. Until, arriving prematurely at death’s door, Aurora asks Pilar to find Gian Luca Ventura, a man she has never even mentioned before. The unlikely domestic sleuth tracks him down, arriving just in time for Aurora’s funeral, as Lost Paradise gives way to Paradise and Gian Luca’s retelling of their African romance.
The sound cuts out with Gian Luca’s gentle intoning, “She had a farm in Africa at the foothills of Mount Tabu” – echoes of Sydney Pollack’s Out Of Africa rebounding. In Miguel Gomes’ Tabu however, the mountain takes the place of the lagoon from Murnau’s original, the dangerous locus designated “Tabu” after a pearl fisher is eaten by a shark. Diving back into Aurora’s youth, cast back into the Fifties and an unnamed Portuguese dependency, Aurora is the young newlywed of a wealthy exporter of ostrich feather cushions. And despite Aurora’s virile marksmanship with a hunting rifle, Paraiso is a time of lost innocence, her affair with handsome heartbreaker Gian Luca echoing the forbidden relationship of Murnau’s original, while placing Aurora in the very female role of unfaithful wife, alongside all of literature’s Emma Bovarys and Anna Kareninas. Like Murnau’s Tabu, Paradise is a tale of infidelity – Adam and Eve cast out of the edenic garden, but in Miguel Gomes’ film, Paradise follows the contemporary Lost Paradise section – a neat rewind back to a time before post-colonial guilt and the modern loss of innocence.
It’s a soundless romance between Aurora and her handsome neighbour Gian Luca, who stumble across each other when Aurora’s pet baby crocodile escapes into his garden. The crocodile itself, an expensive gift from her extravagant husband, is an intriguing metaphor – a female libido heading into her handsome neighbour’s domain. It’s also this enigmatic image that Gomes chooses to close the film with – the crocodile an anthropomorphic stand-in for the now deceased Aurora, wild and unpredictable, or a metaphor for post-colonial guilt, furtive and brooding. The wordlessness of Paradise, in which the sweet nothings exchanged between Aurora and her lover are deliberately withheld, recalls, along with its square aspect ratio, the nostalgic drama of the cine-film – the mysterious veil of a narrative mode in the past refusing to conjecture the present tense, or a documentarian refusing to obfuscate the truth with half-remembered dialogue. But, with sound restricted to a voice-over narration and the SoCal inflected harmonies of Mario’s four-piece band, we’re unable to hear the words spoken between the lovers, forever distanced from their tragic story of taboo love.
But beyond the familiar swell of adulterous liaisons, there’s also an end-of-days undercurrent of guilt and madness as Paradise rushes headlong from genesis to fall. The family’s witch-doctor cook prophesies Aurora will become pregnant, with motherhood set to sweeten the game hunter’s virile nature. But as her belly swells and illicit desire turns into love, Tabu becomes a maelstrom of fleeting currents. Carloto Cotta as Gian Luca, with his camera-adoring matinee idol good looks, almost unrecognisable from Mysteries Of Lisbon, is structured as a lover/rival to his good friend Mario, the only one who could possibly dissuade Ventura from his madness. And while Mario covers for him, secreting Gian Luca’s incriminating jacket with a sleight of foot, still he’s betrayed and shot – harbinger of reason, rejected lover, dirty secret. Like the spiral staircase which only requires a Hitchcockian dolly zoom to complete the effect, and the young French boxer parring with invisible enemies, madness lurks like a crocodile. Like the feral despair of the last days of empire hidden under a cloak of amiability.
With the local militia taking the blame for Mario’s senseless death, turning him posthumously into a colonialist spy and sparking a revolution, the madness transcends the personal into the political. These unspoken crimes, never to be revealed, are inextricably linked to colonial guilt – the dirty secret of white men coveting neighbours’ wives and plundering virginal African plains. In fact, there’s an anthropological framing to the conclusion of Gian Luca and Aurora’s story, the downtrodden natives powerlessly observing the futile white man’s feud. But, more than taboos of infidelity, homosocial rivalry or empire, Tabu is itself forbidden – the history of a story that can’t be told, sealed within an ancient matriarchal pact. Like a jewel summoned from the deep, Gomes’ film is scintillating and faceted, but like a blood diamond from Africa’s red soil, dark and disavowed.
Tabu is released in the UK on 7th September 2012