Tabu: Once Upon a Time in the Present

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Tabu: Once Upon a Time in the Present

Some filmmakers seem to know more than what they share with us. The opaqueness of their films, however, is not always a sign of vanity. There is a small group of directors whose reluctance should be attributed to a charming shyness and an abundance of creative ideas rather than an overdose of self-appreciation. Miguel Gomes is definitely one of them. It is difficult not to feel enchanted and profoundly saddened, not to mention intellectually enriched, after watching his third feature film Tabu, yet one cannot immediately identify what all this is about. Gomes obviously has a lot to say about memory, nostalgia, colonialism, love, loss and cinema itself; but it’s not a singular, clear statement about any of these that makes Tabu so mesmerizing, it’s the bizarre harmony of all.

Tabu is that much-needed film about nostalgia in the midst of many nostalgic films. Two distinct halves of the film, titled Paradise Lost and Paradise as a reference to the Murnau classic with the same name, constitute the opposite ends of a unique nostalgia spectrum. It all begins with a strangely disturbing yet funny story about a European explorer in Africa, the ghost he loves and a “sad, melancholy crocodile”. As this brief section dissolves into a movie a lonely lady named Pilar watches, we are given the first warning: No matter how touching, beautiful and yes, nostalgic things may seem; it is only the representation, and not the represented itself, that is touching, beautiful and nostalgic. When Pilar wipes her tears off in the theatre, the sad and romantic nature of the story she has just seen becomes evident; but things take a surprising turn soon after. Pilar’s half of the film is full of enjoyable bits, interesting anectodes and strange dreams  that share a similar bizarreness and eeriness with the explorer’s adventures. Furthermore, her old neighbour Aurora is the heroine of a decades-old love story and her last wish is to see the love of her life one more time. What unfolds on screen is every bit as romantic and unique as what precedes it, yet the previously established sense of bewilderment or nostalgia is nowhere to be found.

Gomes displays an incredible command of the medium in turning a bunch of deeply affecting, dusty and eccentric stories into something deliberately deadpan, absurd and disordered. His characters are a lady who hangs abstract paintings on her walls in order to please a friend even though she is not very fond of the paintings herself, a silent maid of African origin (a hint of what is to follow, perhaps) and Aurora, an oddly likeable old woman despite (or because of) her advanced gambling addiction.While an African character quickly brings the colonial past to mind and Aurora’s stories have an emotional side to them, their depiction creates a gallery of characters as awkward as it sounds. The “non-nostalgia” effect of this gallery and its stories is formed by a series of bold formal choices. This part of the film is shot in deep black and strong, luminous white; with a mostly static camera. The dialogue, with little music to interrupt its flow, is sometimes intentionally pointless and constantly funny. All the events take place in a relatively short period of time,yet the interval is divided into chapters named after the days of the week.

Given how entertaining and creative Pilar’s section is, we could have enjoyed Tabu greatly if it had reached a conclusion at the end of it. But with a very confident move halfway through the film, Gomes jumps to the other end of the nostalgia spectrum and presents a devastatingly romantic tale of forbidden love, told in a silent film of sorts with an incredibly poetic narration. There comes our second warning, reminding us the first one: Tabu is far more than a delightful exercise in style; it is a compelling account of cinematic, personal and national history with a twisted conceptual basis. The second part, taking place in a paradise in Africa, is a most evocative, nostalgic and heartbreaking film on its own right. It is definitely a beautiful remembrance with equal measures of sadness and humour. But in fact, what Aurora and her lover Ventura remember here is not a pink cloud of lovely memories. Not only does their affair involve a third party, a murder and a flood of tears, it also occurs during the colonist era of Portuguese history; a period marked by hardship and disillusionment. But despite the weight of the content, it all seems exquisitely beautiful, cheerful and worth remembering. Aurora’s story is told in hazy black and off-white with many shades of grey with the camera becoming as free-spirited and courageous as our passionate heroine. There is not a single line of spoken dialogue in this section though an exceptionally literary narration and a wonderful blend of nostalgic songs fill the soundtrack. Gomes provides chapter headings once again, now borrowing the titles from the months of the year. While the time they occupy on screen is essentially the same, the time interval these chapters cover is much longer in comparison to their counterparts in Pilar’s story. This gives everything a blurry feel, like a wealth of major incidents condensed into a dreamlike summary. Here, Gomes skillfully avoids rushing things, creating the pace and rhythm of a distant memory by purely cinematic means.

While the contrasts of style and content is quite interesting as an experiment, it is the reasoning behind it that makes the entire effort worthwhile. Tabu is such a pure delight to watch that one is not immediately inclined to consider its political implications. But even though politics never become an obvious preoccupation, a rich undercurrent is undeniably there. It makes perfect sense for a Portuguese director of Gomes’ generation to question the notion of nostalgia because he is a descendant of the explorers who established colonies in Africa with great hopes, only to return with unfulfilled expectations and sliding memories of their once-idealised paradise. Perhaps the real taboo Gomes’ film breaks is that it dares to show how misleading the loving memories of the colonial past are as it reminds us the destruction and disappointment this period caused for both the Europeans and the Africans. As the title of the first section (Paradise Lost) hints, going back to the past in the second section carries a bittersweet irony for its title (Paradise) refers to something it never was. The colony was a land of brutality, loss and failure, yet after many years, it is remembered with a deceptive sense of joy and loving melancholy because it meant home to a certain generation.

Equally astonishing and rewarding are the plethora of cinematic references Gomes drops throughout the film. Apart from the obvious Murnau connection, we are introduced to a band of musicians who can easily belong to an Aki Kaurismaki film and treated to a voice-over narration reminiscent of the most graceful romances of Max Ophuls. It is not a coincidence that the name Aurora brings Sunrise, the most beloved of Murnau films, to mind, either. As a sign of thematic consistency, Tabu is closely linked to Gomes' previous works The Face You Deserve and Our Beloved Month of August, two similarly structured pieces exploring the act of storytelling. It is very fitting that such an eclectic and unpredictable canvas with many tonal shifts has an incredibly broad list of inspirations. All these playful elements also add a personal touch to the film, making its view on nostalgia and history more sincere and complete. Considering Gomes’ career as a film critic, it is hardly surprising that his recollections borrow a lot from famous films, some of which have probably had a major impact on his own life. There is a delicacy in the way Gomes handles his unique cinematic collage in the sense that his references constantly contribute to a mood and support an idea as a whole without becoming one-shot jokes with little subtlety. While a number of memorable characters or certain lines of dialogue with cinematic roots stick in the mind, their sources remain difficult enough to identify.

Tabu is a rare work that makes full use of the manipulative power of cinema without becoming manipulative itself. By oversimplifying, we can say this film is essentially a game, but we need to allow its creator to play with us to enjoy it more. The great irony here is that Tabu demands us to open our minds and senses so that every little glance, every piece of music, every movement of the camera, every bit of grain on screen can change how we perceive the film, yet it does so in order to question the reliability of that very perception. As Gomes guides (or controls) us through astonishing passages of deadpan humour and gentle but deep melancholy, the experience becomes so involving that all the serious themes never turn into a burden. The balance here is a very unique and noteworthy one: This is an immensely enjoyable film despite all the important issues it deals with since there is a lovely lightness and joyfulness in its delivery, but it is serious and important because of this joy in the first place.

Some great films are wonderful old friends; you think you know them very well but after each visit, they present you something totally fresh and interesting without diminishing the comfort of familiarity. You remember something you were very fond of and this is nice, of course. But the same remembrance never recurs; it is sometimes more bizarre and entertaining, sometimes more romantic and even sad. Then, there is this unique cinematic creature called Tabu, the absolute one of its kind. It is also quite familiar and each time you return to it, what you remember becomes even more multi-layered. But it achieves one more very distinctive thing; it invites you to the process of remembering. I highly doubt one could expect more from the story of a sad, melancholy crocodile.