Tabu – Miguel Gomes and the endless beauty of cinema. (film review)

Just when you lose faith in a fresh face ever being planted on a post-colonial tale, along comes Tabu with a face so fresh I was even able to forgive the not-so-blatant mocking of my beloved European 60’s cinema.  Tabu  doesn’t brandish its cleverness, something exceedingly rare in cinema,  therefore it throbs with those stunning moments when the brain sparks go off  – modern parlance would call these “ah-ha” moments – and you are left free to delight in the lines drawn between cinematic eras. I have said it before on this blog and I will say it again – I love it when a director has great respect for his audience.

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Tabu shrouds itself in a gentle anti-irony that is actually the sharpest ironic wit you will see on the big screen for years. It’s protagonist, and star of the first half, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is repeatedly called “kind” even by those who have just met her (even by dogs) and like many of the films themes it is always offered as a rebuke, flattery or a condemnation. It is the director they are talking about, and he is unspeakably kind. His warmth lies at the bottom of his multiple criticisms and this gives them a gentle power rarely seen outside of a religious text. Take for example the delightful moments between Pila and Maya, the Polish nun meant to stay with her. These exchanges are haphazard, filled with an attempt at subterfuge on the part of the young Polish girl and a wise warm knowing on the part of Pila.  Like the cinema of Poland in the 1960’s the meet ups, first in an airport and then in a park, are accidental acts of brilliance, a witty injection as the world warmly invites a Polish New Wave and its wonderful works of art (in the case of this film, Mother Joan of the Angels), and that Poland refuses to  adhere to.   There is no Polish new wave, no matter how many attempts have been made retrospectively to create it.

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Tabu is bursting with clever moments like this.  Many of them have been detailed in the substantial positive reviews of the film. Much is made of the second half, distinctly different in style and narrative to the first half, and a leap forward in time, despite its obvious travel back. Where the first half of the film speaks to the cinema in Europe in the 1960’s the second half bookends this with its references of Westernized African films of the “future” (1985’s Out of Africa is a case in point) and colonization films of the “past”, most obviously F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent film Tabu.  The first Tabu also splits its narrative into two parts, the first being “paradise” about a young couple in love who are forced to flee when the girls is chosen to be sacrificed to the gods and the second chapter “paradise lost” depicts life on a colonized Island and the way the young couple have to be westernized. Like the first Tabu, this version shrouds the complications of the politics in the sublime beauty of the love affair.  However unlike the first Tabu, Miguel Gomes is very clear he is speaking to an informed post-colonial audience.

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The first half of the film is very much in the style of the new wave of cinema that strode across Europe in the 1960’s.  Focus is on buildings built-in that time period and much of the action (if you’d call it action) takes place in doorways, corridors, halls, roads, airports and other transitional spaces, much favored by New Wave cinema. Narrative is deep and slow, focusing as much on the environment as on  any of the characters. Of course no gentle humorous glances at the New Wave would be complete without political activism, and Pila is a militant social benefactor while also being that most impossible of all New Wave protagonists – a sympathetic practicing catholic.

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While the original Tabu is a silent film, the second Tabu is and isn’t at the same time. The first half is clouded over with long-winded intense narratives that drowned out by the absurdity of an industrialized Lisbon.  People tell story’s in long drawn out sentences over coffee in cafes, or in short enigmatic bursts that reveal in a universe in seven words. The second half of the film, the one where a great and shameful secret crime is revealed (read colonialism) is a kind of deconstructed experience with sound where one can only hear Africa in the noise of the land; all the people, black and white have no voice.  Colonization is represented in contemporary pop music (much has been said about the stunning music in this film, so I won’t go into it here) and the protagonists narrative is a voice over in the multiple forms of straight narrative and, absurdly, in letter reading. In other words, we only hear the story  – that is the version – people are willing to tell either in the passed along mythology or the written histories. We never hear the story as is it played out for us as witnesses. We are told what happens.  We are only given other perspectives in highly masked and glossy images. It’s a wonderfully clever way to reveal the complexities and problems of the study of history, with Gnomes endless kindness and love of cinema at its core.

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I’ve said this a lot lately – but this is a truly excellent film. I try to only critique films I like or that have given me something interesting to say, but so many great films were made last year, it is hard not to look like a little cinema fan-girl. But here we go again. Tabu is a genuinely brilliant film that must not be missed.

I should also add, that three of the best films I saw from 2012 started with the camera fixed on an audience. Amour starts that way, Holy Motors and Tabu. We seem to be fascinated by the watcher in cinema at the moment.

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