Last year, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes blessed us cinephiles with his masterwork called "Tabu" (2012). That it got lost somewhere in the Oscar rat race is inconsequential, for such films eventually find their audience anyway. This humble reviewer was fortunate enough to lay his lands on this gem, a sumptuous audio-visual feast, a gentle, absorbing film experience that lovingly caresses the senses.
After a strange prologue about an intrepid explorer in the jungles of Africa, whose death gives rise to an old African folklore, about a sad crocodile and a beautiful woman sharing a mysterious pact (!) , we move on to the first part of the film which paints a rather disconcerting picture of three characters that are mostly emotionally or physically detached, slowly drowning in their respective empty pools of loneliness. There's Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged, lonesome lady, who has a sadness about her, but is always there for her neighbour and friend, an old lady, Ms. Aurora (Laura Soveral, in a spectacular performance). Ms. Pilar is the only character you can perhaps feel for or respect in this entire episode. But you also fail to understand her when she subtly rejects the advances of her painter friend, a gentleman who shows some genuine interest in her.
Aurora is a cantankerous old woman, but it is difficult to entirely dislike her considering her age and senility. She sometimes doesn’t know what she is talking about and goes gambling based on weird dreams of monkeys and men! Probably her difficult persona and compulsive gambling addiction has made her daughter disown her and put her in the care of a paid full-time maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Santa, an arrogant woman from Africa, is the most robotic and unlikeable of the lot! She only follows the orders of Aurora’s daughter, her employer, least caring that the old woman she is serving needs help. She even asks kindly well-wishers like Pilar to mind their own business, but doesn’t hesitate to ask for their help when in need!
This first part is what Gomes describes as "A Lost Paradise". This part leaves you in a suspended state for a while, not knowing where it is headed. You can see that the lives we are dealing with are quite empty, but what awaits them? And how is this connected to the story of the crocodile?
But then something happens towards the end of this story and Gomes takes us straight to a backstory that shifts the focus of the film entirely to the sultry landscapes of Africa somewhere near Mount Tabu in the early 60s! Here is where we see an entirely different picture of the old lady we are introduced to. Aptly titled "Paradise", in this final part of the film we become audiences to the days of yore of a young and beautiful Aurora (Ana Moreira), and a watershed event in her life in the backdrop of the impending Portuguese Colonial war!
Gomes films entirely in black and white but there’s a huge distinction between the texture of "A Lost Paradise" and "Paradise". The former is shot with a clarity and sharpness not found in the latter half, which in turn has a slightly grainy, coarse look to indicate that the scenes are several years older! This device is a clever move by the director, one that helps in enhancing the rustic quality of this chapter of the story.
While the first part is far more compelling narrative-wise, the second part is more cinematically alluring and aesthetically superior. This section alone garners much of the points. Picture yourself sitting below a tree in the languid, rural countryside in Africa and it is the middle of the afternoon. It is quiet and you are enjoying the solitude, the sounds of the birds, the bees, the water flowing in a nearby stream, while you throw pebbles into it to hear a gentle plop! Yet it’s all quiet anyway and far away at a distance you hear someone playing on a bongo and singing some good old African folk music. Somewhere, not far away, are two individuals conversing with each other. You don’t hear what they speak, you can only see their lips move, but you continue to hear the ambient sounds, and you are completely submitting yourself to them. Yet you continue to gaze at the individuals and enjoy the moment of quietude.
This is the kind of feeling evoked in the entire final hour. It is an almost silent episode, with no dialog! The only sound that is present is the diegetic sound and the tale is told through a poetic voice-over narration of an important character in the film, Gian-Luca Ventura (played by Henrique Espírito Santo and Carloto Cotta in the present and the flashback respectively), who plays an integral part in this episode. The entire second half is shot with a kind of finesse and vision that is rare.
The scenes in the remote, isolated countryside evoke a sense of longing and nostalgia, and at the same time give you a feeling of filling your lungs with the fresh air as the wind rustles through the tall grass; a commendable feat considering that you experience this only through the breathtaking images, thanks to the fantastic cinematography, and a sound that is music to the ears. There is an ethereal beauty to behold in this episode; a kind of scenario nothing short of paradise! And as the story takes an inevitable turn from a state of tranquility to chaos, it also evokes a sense of melancholy and sadness, of despair and lost love, of guilt and deep regret! The strong performances of Carloto Cotta and Ana Moreira make it all the more real. You are watching it all happen in Aurora’s life, as spectators in that world Gomes calls paradise!
..And somewhere in the middle of all this, appearing like a common link, is the wide-eyed ugly reptile that crawls its way through all the stories, sometimes symbolically and sometimes literally! It appears and disappears and sometimes crosses some forbidden lines. And even though it is shown to be a carnivorous beast that it is, in the beginning, it still carries the sadness of a lost love. Despite the glistening sharp teeth and the wide open jaws ready to devour its victim, the crocodile, in this film, in fact serves as an allegory of undying, unrequited love and longing, that’s in the end, the main theme of this lyrical film!
Where "Tabu" succeeds most, then, is not in its story but in its story-telling! It is the filmmaking technique that surpasses the content of the film itself. The narrative and its structure combined with the camerawork, sound design and the outstanding performances is what makes the film all the more compelling. Gomes is no ordinary director and he proves it with a fantastic experiment that has achieved success and how! This is the kind of film that makes us appreciate the craft of filmmaking. Gomes pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film, "Tabu, a Story of the South Seas" in borrowing its name as well as the titles of the two parts in the narrative, however, there are no other similarities as far as the treatment and material in the two films are concerned. "Tabu" is a one of a kind, deeply personal, sensory experience; the kind of cinema that is difficult to come by these days.
Go ahead and indulge! Soak yourself in this pleasurable pool full of beauty and come out mesmerized..