(Miguel Gomes, 2012)
The second half of Tabu is a near-magical slice of romance. Romance both in its portrayal of a rapturously passionate love affair, and in its love for cinema itself, for its power to capture and stir emotion. The first half, on the other hand, is an awkwardly arty contemporary drama which is slightly stilted and yet has a subtly powerful effect when juxtaposed with what follows.
The whole thing is beautiful to look at, captured by Gomes' cinematographer Rui Poças in stunning black and white. This is startlingly pretty - emphasised by Gomes' lovely compositions - in the first half, but once the story shifts locale it becomes even more so.
That first stage follows Pilar, a middle-aged retiree in Lisbon, as she lives a quietly melancholy life, and is drawn into the decline of her elderly neighbour, Aurora. Aurora lives with Santa, a carer/maid of African descent employed by Aurora's unseen daughter. She is paranoid and agitated, believes Santa is spying on her and using witchcraft, and she rambles about crocodiles. Pilar, meanwhile, attends political rallies, weeps at movies, is friends with an artist who is in love with her and is expecting a young Polish woman (conspicuously a fellow Catholic) as a houseguest. When Aurora's condition radically worsens, she mentions a man from her past she would like to see, an Pilar sets out to find him. When he arrives he tells the women their story, of a love affair in Colonial Africa in the 1960s with a tragic ending...
While the first half is a conventionally shot and played arthouse drama, the second half is a virtual silent movie, the reconstructed memories of one character, told in detailed, poetic voiceover. There is no dialogue, only sound effects and music. The two parts echo and comment on one another in clever and provocative ways. Pilar's life in drab modern Europe is almost apologetic - she protests politely, is quiet about her faith, and reticent in her personal relationships. The scenes in Africa show us what she may have been apologising for - this is a romantic frontier on the edge of a violent death, and functions here as the perfect location for the flowering of forbidden passion. Gomes nudges the politics in his story, mentioning the rebels in Africa throughout as part of the backdrop to the love story, but finally suggests that this love - an adultery regarded by both lovers as monstrous - can only thrive against the backdrop of the even more monstrous sin of colonial rule.
For all that, Tabu is funny, witty, wholly eccentric and moving, and Gomes is a filmmaker with a fully-formed sense of the world and how he wishes to represent it, evident in both his visual style and his storytelling, which is filled with interesting choices and provocative moments. That view of the world includes art in telling ways, and as well as that cinephilia - this film begins with an excerpt of a fictional film upon which Aurora worked during her time in Africa, itself telling a metatextual story of love among Europeans in that continent - Gomes indulges in his love of music, underlining a couple of rousing Portuguese covers of Phil Spector songs and making the lover in the flashback story the drummer in a band (who are seen, a little bizarrely, playing the Ramones "Baby I Love You" at a garden party). Art, here, is seemingly one of the aspects of life excused the stain of the sin left by Colonialism.