Having screened yesterday evening in the Wavelengths program, the cinephilic event of the Competition at the Berlinale in February has just one more appointment in Toronto—tomorrow. But it’s opening today in nearly a dozen theaters in the UK and will screen twice in mid-October at the New York Film Festival.
“A Few Crazy Thoughts on Tabu” from Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson: “An impressively dense yet fleeting concatenation of doomed love, colonial guilt, a reflection on the changing aesthetics and characteristics of cinema, Tabu is a deeply emotional and heartbreaking film; like its female protagonist, it’s bipolar, both depressive and ecstatic. Though it looks and feels like a different beast than Gomes‘s first two features, Tabu shares with The Face You Deserve (2004) and Our Beloved Month of August (2008) the same preoccupation with storytelling and the perceptual contrast between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’… If Tabu is a ‘critic’s film,’ its references are not destinations but points of embarkation to a place where incantations, ghosts, and a white-suited band out in Africa playing ‘Be My Baby’ in Portuguese evoke a past we don’t even know we know; as Aurora says, ‘The memory of the world is eternal and no one can escape from it.'”
Trevor Johnston for Sight & Sound:
Across two disparate segments we meet a seemingly dotty elderly woman and then see her secret African past played out almost as if it were an old movie, a singular unfolding that registers the psychological ripple effect of Portugal’s colonial legacy while also conjuring a gauzy sense of Hollywood’s far-off days of pith-helmeted adventure. The juxtapositions ping across emotional, historical and celluloid landscapes, yet Tabu is no glib mash-up straining only for superficial effect; its rich array of connections and ambiguities draws the viewer in, creating an allusive yet human drama that’s immersive and rewarding.
Oh, and it’s just beautiful. Academy ratio, no less. Black and white in both 35mm and 16mm stock. Grain you want to reach out and touch. No wonder Gomes is the talk of the festival circuit, since this highly original assemblage is so obviously the real deal….
Experts in Portuguese national cinema will no doubt find points of contact with the likes of Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa, for so long the country’s international standard bearers, but at the risk of making a sweeping generalization, the quintessentially Portuguese notion of saudade—that longing for a return to a lost happiness which can never be regained—surely offers an entry point to Tabu‘s historical, cultural and emotional labyrinth.
“As for the cinephile references, F.W. Murnau‘s 1931 film of the same name is one, and Gomes may even be hinting playfully at Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “As a young woman, Aurora is supposed to have been a technical adviser on an imaginary Hollywood movie called It Will Never Snow Again Over Kilimanjaro, but rejects cinema as trifling. Cinephilia gives the film its flavor, but the simple, forthright human drama is what’s important.”
“There’s something timeless about it,” finds the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “The cover versions of 1960s pop songs… induce a faraway rapture. A baby crocodile becomes the lovers’ mascot. Words are sung, but not one is spoken—often, we hear only the chirrups of insects. When it ends, the movie leaves you with a perfect ache. If it isn’t the year’s best, I can’t wait to see what that might be.”
“The sound design alone makes the film fairly compelling from moment to moment,” writes Darren Hughes, “but I wanted more.”
Neil Young finds that Gomes “weaves an intricate filigree of unreliable memory, romantic fantasy and rueful longing, lightly seasoned with cultural references—literary as well as cinematic—and filled with tantalising lacunae that leave almost infinite room for interpretation and speculation.”
And the Independent‘s Anthony Quinn: “Its extraordinary handling of time has something of the elegance of an Alice Munro short story.”
Update, 9/9: “Welcome to movie magic.” Let’s go ahead and have a full outline, this one courtesy of Nikola Grozdanovic at indieWIRE. Following a prologue, the Tabu is “split into two sections, beginning with ‘Lost Paradise’ in modern day Lisbon, where we see Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a kind elderly lady leading an ordinary life—an anomaly as far as cinematic subjects are concerned. It is her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), a woman losing her mind to old age and dementia, who preoccupies Pilar’s mind. Aurora, left to fend for herself by her daughter, lives with her servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso), whom she believes is a witch commanded by Satan to make her life miserable. Pilar, a devout woman who prays each night, keeps up with the current issues and participates in UN demonstrations, tries to help her neighbor in any way she can, finally tracking down a long lost part of Aurora’s past, a man called Gian Luco Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). The introduction of Ventura paves way for Part II, ‘Paradise,’ a transportation back in time to a Portuguese colony in Africa where a young and vivacious Aurora (Ana Moreira) lives with her husband and meets a young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) to offset a classic love story.”
Updates, 9/15: “Tabu displays, without a single wink of irony, the oblivious pleasures to be had as a colonial dweller at the height of Empire (Portuguese or any other),” notes Michael Sicinski at MUBI. “Aurora is exceedingly sweet on her pet baby crocodile, which in many respects is emblematic of unreflective ownership of Africa that is the backdrop, and precondition, for all of Aurora’s romance and transgression. While so many other Portuguese films have been quite curiously engaged with this end-of-empire theme (Birds, Last Time I Saw Macao), Tabu does not announce itself as a critique. Rather, the fate of Aurora—’kept’ by the black Santa, weak and powerless, confined to a small Lisbon flat—is compared to her ‘glorious’ past, to demonstrate rather directly the raw seduction of this ‘white man’s burden.’ The fact that Gomes imbricates and implicates cinema itself with this Western fantasy only shows Tabu‘s deep sophistication.”
The Torino Film Festival will be devoting a tribute to Gomes as part of its 30th edition (November 23 through December 1).
Viewing (8’15”). Cineuropa interviews Gomes.
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