DAILY | Miguel Gomes’s TABU

Like Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, Miguel Gomes‘s Tabu premiered at the Berlinale, where it picked up an award (a Silver Bear for Best Director for Barbara, the Alfred Bauer Award for Tabu) before trekking through the festival circuit, gathering raves all along the way. Our first round of reviews was gathered in September, when Tabu screened in Toronto, and we followed it up with another in October as the film was set to screen in Philadelphia (scroll down a tad). Tabu is currently showing at New York’s Film Forum through January 8, and once again, as with Barbara, Adopt Films will be taking it around the country through March.

Dennis Lim‘s spoken with Gomes for the New York Times: “He likes to call his films ‘musical comedies,’ which is an apt enough phrase if each word is broadly defined, but he also speaks of them in terms of ‘mutation’ and ‘contamination.’ Their signal attribute is their unpredictability; they often seem to start in one genre and end in another. In his first feature, The Face You Deserve (2004), a frustrated children’s entertainer dreams his way into a warped version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His second, Our Beloved Month of August (2008), begins as a documentary about the folk customs of rural Portugal but gets progressively odder as its subjects become characters in an encroaching fiction.” Tabu “is his most ambitious shape shifter yet.”

The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody finds Tabu to be “one of the most original and inventive—as well as trenchantly political and painfully romantic—movies of recent years. It’s a film in a rare genre: its plot is so adroitly and sensitively imagined and realized that a mere telling of the things that take place would suffice to reveal the depth of the director’s imaginative discernment—his ample and nuanced vision of the extraordinary elements and implications of ordinary lives. But it’s also realized with a casually audacious sense of cinematic form even as it ignores conventional wisdom regarding cinematic politics.”

“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,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “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…. 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.”

“After a gorgeous prologue, Gomes settles into the first of two chapters of roughly equal length, both in different contrasts of black and white, separated by 50 years,” writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. “‘Paradise Lost’ follows Teresa Madruga, a lonely middle-aged woman from Lisbon who gets an unusual request from her feisty octogenarian neighbor (Laura Soveral). Hospitalized and paranoid about the maid (Isabel Cardoso) who accompanies her, Soveral sends Madruga on a mission to seek out a man from Soveral’s distant past. Once Madruga finds him, the film enters chapter two, ‘Paradise,’ set in colonial Africa half a century earlier, when Soveral’s character (now played by Ana Moreira) was the beautiful wife of a successful but dull farmer (Ivo Mueller). While pregnant with her husband’s baby, Moreira falls deeply in love with the dashing Carloto Cotta, and their forbidden love goes as far as fate—partly in the form of unrest among their African hosts—will take them…. Tabu is a peculiar, lopsided piece of structural gamesmanship, but there’s nothing out there entirely like it.”

“The themes of innocence and sin percolate in Mr. Gomes’s century-straddling, stylistically heterogeneous narrative,” notes the NYT‘s A.O. Scott, “but he is interestingly sly about how they are distributed between past and present. If the film enacts a fall, it is from a relatively guiltless present into a more corrupt past that is also a realm of greater beauty and more intense feeling. This is a dubious notion, and Tabu makes it convincing only within the narrow compass of its own artifice. It is, of course, art rather than history—an elegant composition of dreams, memories and suggestive images—but its artfulness seems like an alibi, an excuse for keeping the ugliness of history out of the picture.”

But for Michael Joshua Rowin, writing for the L, Tabu “achieves vividness as an eerie reverie, with sharp glimpses of colonial rot and encroaching nature clashing against Ventura’s wistful musings and Spector-stamped pop gems. Put together, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise’ produce an ironic moral about the lasting legacy of political resignation and romantic regret, but also—and just as important—a lush invocation of damaged longings and memories.”

More from Ian Buckwalter (NPR), Brian Clark (Twitch), and Michael Ryan (Hammer to Nail). Interviews with Gomes: Christopher Bell (Playlist), Giovanni Marchini Camia (Bomb), Dustin Chang (Twitch), Tom Hall (Hammer to Nail), David Phelps (Notebook), Hillary Weston (BlackBook), Zachary Wigon (Filmmaker), and Chris Wisniewski (Reverse Shot).

Updates, 12/29: “The film is as beautiful as it is polemical,” writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. “Gomes’s exceedingly clever structure makes it impossible to separate politics and aesthetics. The point is that existence in any historical moment doesn’t allow the luxury of opting out, even by choosing not to participate in certain acts. The story of Aurora and Gian Luca’s affair takes place against the backdrop of excitable colonists getting out their guns to quash rebellion. In voiceover, Gian Luca explains that he and his lover were ‘indifferent to the fate of the empire,’ viewing the turmoil as excuse and cover to conduct their affair. But indifference is not the same as a lack of complicity, and Tabu‘s ingenious denouement demonstrates the impossibility of being truly non-political.”

Eric Hynes talks with Gomes for the Voice: “Why not have melodramas, forbidden love affairs, melancholic crocodiles, bands playing Phil Spector songs. Why not?”

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