Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

“Tabu” is a Terrific Time Machine

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There are repeat viewings that diminish (“Zero Dark Thirty” seemed more problematic the second time around, mainly due to the clunk clunk clunk of its leading lady’s brass-balls performance) and there are repeat viewings that confirm: Seen for the third time, Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu” (which opens today for a two-week run at New York’s Film Forum) is even more impressive.

A pair of nested narratives , taking its title, theme, structure, and something of its silent cinema stylistics from the 1931 South Seas collaboration between mise-en-scène meister F.W. Murnau and documentarian Robert Flaherty, the Portuguese director’s third feature is also an exotically time-warped hybrid; Gomes’s “Tabu” is purposefully archaic (shot on film in black-and-white, using the old-fashioned academy ratio) and dispensing with synchronous dialogue midway to maintain a shifting combination of voiceover, music, and selected sound effects.

Like the original, the Gomes “Tabu” is divided into parts named “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” although Gomes inverts the order to begin in contemporary Lisbon, hanging with the middle-aged idealist Pilar (Teresa Madruga). A practicing Catholic and devout, if depressed, movie watcher—the strange prologue, recognized in retrospect as a kind of dream version of “Paradise,” turns out to be a movie she’s attending—Pilar attempts to help her elderly, increasingly addled neighbor Aurora through the final days of her earthly existence.

The space is deep and lovely; the pace is deliberate, the performances are drolly stilted in the deadpan manner of mid-period Fassbinder and there’s no narrative arc until Pilar is sent, per Aurora’s dying request, to find the mysterious Gian Luca Ventura. She locates him in a nursing home, just a bit too late.  After Aurora’s funeral, Gian Luca recounts a tale that begins by paraphrasing the first sentence from “Out of Africa” (“Aurora had a farm in Africa on the slopes of Mount Tabu”) and grows ever more desperately romantic. Dialogue disappears, Paradise is regained—or at least the paradise of an old man’s memory of European settlers in Africa.

The beautiful, willful young Aurora (Ana Moreira), pregnant by her tea-planter husband, initiates a reckless affair with her new neighbor Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta), an Italian adventurer who somewhat resembles the young Leonardo DiCaprio. Their doomed relationship, played out over a few months, has its oddball features. The catalyst is Aurora’s pet crocodile, a gift from her husband. Gian Luca plays drums in a cover band that specializes in the Ronettes. Gomes has called “Tabu” a musical and it is. I never expected to hear “Be My Baby” (albeit in Portuguese); a poolside performance of “Baby I Love You,” with a gaggle of settler women dancing the twist, is a brilliantly imagined period touch, capturing the indolence and delusion of colonial life in the tropics.

Aurora’s heedless passion—which proves inadvertently useful for the (off screen) African nationalists in their burgeoning revolt against Portugal—has its correlative in the movie’s rampant, yet casual, cinephilia. Nothing is forbidden. “Tabu” is rich with narrative fillips; its soundtrack is a model of adroitly managed bridges and substitutions. There’s an idea, or at least a gesture, in nearly every set-up. Gomes creates and tosses off all manner of economical special effects—a shot gratuitously taken shot through a rain-streaked window, a passage of interpolated amateur filmmaking, a bit in which the lovers see animals outlined in the clouds, a sudden 90-degree camera tilt.

Truly a time-machine, “Tabu” does feel like something new (unlike say, last year’s big winner, “The Artist”). Even, or rather, especially on repeated viewings. Gomes’s movie is so ingenuous, well-executed, and filled with unexpected cinematic pleasures that it’s restorative—a movie to reconfirm your faith in the motion picture medium.

Images: Adopt Film

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  1. Abdallah says:

    The year’s best films, please :)

  2. jhoberman says:

    This are my top ten NYC openings (as given to Indiewire and Film Comment):

    Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
    Turin’s Horse
    The Master
    Zero Dark Thirty
    Almayer’s Folly
    This Is Not a Film

  3. Abdallah says:

    I have seen the list…,I have thought that there would be the customary year-end review in the blog , with your usual wit and insight , plus a plethora of runner-ups..,especially in a rich movie-going year like 2012.
    It has always been a pleasure navigating such articles for you, and building to-watch lists based upon them

  4. António Matos says:

    Just a small correction: the version of “Be My Baby” that is heard twice during the movie is not sung in Portuguese, but in Spanish.

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