Toying with narrative form seems to be director Miguel Gomes’s forte. Our Beloved Month Of August turned the documentation of a musically inclined rural village into a humorous deconstruction the filmmaking process, never revealing what might or might not be real. With his latest, Tabu (double 2012 Berlin Film Festival winner: Alfred Bauer Award and a FIPRESCI award), the boundaries of reality are never breached, but the gear shifting narrative is no less inventive and quite a bit more emotionally engaging than his last go round. This time he takes us into the life of a Lisbon dwelling gambling addict retiree who’s implicit previous life in the African foot hills regarding Mount Tabu holds memories of her peak of passion and regret, but this tail, at first caustically withholding and later spryly romantic, is full of rich misdirection that deftly plays with the ideas of loyalty and repression with surprising verve. With his visually stripped down, yet narratively complex third feature, Gomes proves to be a master.
After recanting a sprawling tail of half lived dreams bubbling up through the veil of senility – “there were monkeys with very hairy arms,” Aurora, Tabu‘s unpredictable leading lady plainly states, “People’s lives are not like dreams.” She either says this with suppressive irony or unknowingly tragic wit, having lived a life full of fantasy and nightmarish circumstance long before age took hold of both mind and figure. Her life prior to her pampered golden-age was truthfully quite rich with adventure, tagging along with her wealthy husband, Mario (Manuel Mesquita) and secretly cavorting with his best friend Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta as young and Henrique Espírito Santo as old), but now her mistreated hired help, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), and her sympathetic neighbor, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), put up with her wild tales of crocodiles and countless escapes to the casino. On her death bed, it is Ventura who she asks for, though it had been decades since they’d spoken and neither of her caretakers had ever heard the name.
It is here that the film switches gears. Up to this point, the film largely feels like the tragically unromantic travails of the middle aged Pilar, attending ungrounded protests, going on awkward dates, and of course, tending to Aurora, but from here we are taken back a half century to relieve the short lived forbidden romance between Aurora and Ventura which is recanted in poetic voiceover by Santo for the remainder of the feature while his younger on screen counterpart relives the past. It seems as though this surprising shift in both period and tone would feel misguided, or at best slight, yet it feels instantaneously natural thanks to Ventura’s heartfelt and still heartbroken chronicle of the events that tore him from his lovers grasp. These events, though riveting I assure, will remain unspoiled here. Their story, and that of their present day relationships turns out to be much more culturally complex and lyrically romantic than you could ever guess, and one that would be a travesty to miss.
Though released just weeks within their Blu-ray of another fine Euro import in Barbara, Adopt Films has chosen the cheaper route for this world class film. Shot on a combo of 35mm and 16mm, the black and white Academy cropped image contains plenty of detail and contrast, even showing an adequate amount of film grain. Whether the inclusion of occasional dust particles and artifacts from the film transfer were just a product of the process or an intentional addition are hard to say, but they are indeed occasionally evident. Backing the image is a simple, but elegant stereo track, pumping a combo of dialog and Phil Spector tracks through the two frontal mains. Nothing special, but capable none-the-less. The disc comes absolutely barebones, not even a trailer included.
A film of profound cinematic surprises deserves a home release among the best, yet here is Tabu on a fairly tepid disc without the fanfare it warrants. Being that this also received little theatrical attention stateside, this may be the only way to see it. Though I can’t necessarily recommend the disc when taking it’s rather steep price (though comparable to other micro-labels) into consideration, I can’t urge you enough to seek out the film. Miguel Gomes has made a liquid film of period romance that delves into social responsibility, cultural mingling and the torturous nature of repression, all the while maintaining a playful anti-sentimentalism that reeks of fresh air.