Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: TABU

This film makes three declarations in its firs few seconds.

The first is that it will be in black and white, an aesthetic choice made by filmmakers since the seventies to suggest the past. The second declaration is that the frame is the old fashioned academy ratio (4X3) which consolidates the first, we're not invited back with the comfort of contemporary cinema's panoramic width, we're going to be up close and personal in the frame of vintage movies.

The third declaration is that the image of a pith-helmeted European man standing still in the glare of the African bush is going to be staying there, centre frame for a few long screen minutes. We will be asked for our concentration, patience and even indulgence.

Vintage look and feel, intimacy and indulgence? Sounds like memory to me and that is indeed where we'll be going. The explorer in this introductory sequence is heading for a particular waterhole. He is haunted by phantom of his wife who speaks to him glumly. He takes his exploration party of locals to the waterhole and jumps in. Next we see a crocodile at night, reptilianly still, described in the explorer's voiceover as melancholy. Is it his reincarnation?

After the titles we move to contemporary Lisbon. Part 1: Paradise Lost. Middle aged Pilar mixes the leisure of her days (we first see her at the cinema) with acts of conscience and kindness, joining protests, offering accomodation to overseas students, and prays for all who concern her. A retiree, she finds her days thanklessly lonely but moves through them with a visibly tiring resiliance.

She worries about the old lady in the next apartment, Aurora, whose slight battiness (variously praising and defaming her live-in maid, Santa) is tempered by an active imagination. She speaks of days in Africa in what sounds like whimsy and wishfulness at once and tells brilliantly of the dream that led her to gamble most of her savings away. When Pilar only incompletely succeeds in offering Aurora help she applies to the taciturn Santa for help with a success that only the very patient would recognise. Circumstances lead to Pilar tracking down a man from Aurora's past whose recollections prove the stories of Africa and tell of forbidden love between the man and Aurora.

Part 2: Paradise is told in pictures and voiceover as Aurora's lover, Ventura, tells the tale of their affair in the world of plantations and local strife. The film stock seems to have changed to something grainier than the deep clarity of the first part, more like the antique look of the introductory tale. There is ambient sound (wildlife and weather) and music but no voices but Ventura's narration and the younger Aurora's letters. The acting is not the jokey silent exaggeration of The Artist but naturalistic and the effect is like having home movies narrated by their maker. Except that these go where home movies do not.

The young Aurora's beauty has a radiance that only carefully lighted black and white photography can deliver. Without the distraction of colour we can more clearly relish her luminous eyes and patrician facial structure. Ditto for the younger Ventura whose thinner Deppishness also seems to seek the light. No narration is needed to show the immediacy and danger of their mutual attraction.

The crocodile as pet (unsubtle but still potent symbol of the wildness of the lovers) the always uneasy mix of displaced European culture among the Africans who are getting clearly sick of them, the odd blend of the beauteous nature and brutal humanity and the overriding guilt make for a potent pot that yet feels like a light and nourishing repast when it might easily have been a big bloat. I suspect that this effect is a kind of texturing on the part of writer/driector Miguel Gomes who has managed to regard his tale and scoop out anything too weighty that can be supplied more intuitively. While this means a little substance might be lost it also results in easier digestion. The trope of omitting direct dialogue and letting narration take its place might have been fatiguing but as the writing is so spare and the visual material so varied from rich to feathery the overall effect is of crafted poetry rather than assembly line cinema.

There is a little of the tweeness of magical realism in (at least the translation) the statements of the narration but considering we are given a film as signature as the best of Bela Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies) or Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) or Luis Bunuel (too many but Belle de Jour is a good starting place). There is an ache to Tabu that I have long missed in the movies that I see. The ache is a pleasant one, the slight burn that appears on a memory when the sense lifts the nostalgia out of the way and we begin to examine what is really there. Even if we still can't look at something painful or touch whatever remains toxic there is yet some comfort: we've noticed it again; it hurts but we no longer pretend it never was.

I need to see this again.

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