There’s scarce sound, but you can almost hear the clinking of champagne glasses: in a green landscape dotted with silent black servants and gallivanting bourgeoisie, the billowing white leisurewear of a late ’60s colonial community in Tabu takes on a Proustian, hallucinatory weight. It’s not at all unlike the labyrinth of tuxedos, taffeta, and trim in Last Year At Marienbad: Robbe-Grillet and Resnais were sketching the upper crust’s rigid topography as an inevitable soul-pollutant, as was the art house fashion at the time. Here, director Miguel Gomes starts with that classic assumption and bends it in the opposite direction—the lushest of African nations as dustbin for Portugal’s psychological layaway, a former conqueror state incapable of reconciling itself with past sins. Is this a bad time to mention that “tabu” is Portuguese for “taboo”? The truth is the ultimate fool’s gold in Gomes’s nameless African nation, and its discovery helps launch a new project—the beginning of independence for them (the Africans), which coincidentally signals the end of a romance for us (the moviegoers).
Tabu’s first half, “Paradise Lost,” takes place in present-day Lisbon. Spinster Pilar (Teresa Madruga) lives a salt-free existence prepping U.N. reports on the victims of austerity. Her mercurial upstairs neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) is prone to disappearing acts and random fits of superstition, blankly observed by her Cape Verdean housemaid Santa (Isabel Cardoso). The first sparks of real visual excitement happen when the camera affixes itself to Aurora—her introduction. The old woman describes the dream that led to her frittering away her daughter’s wire-transferred money in a casino. Neon and glass slowly sliding by in the background in a long take, Gomes gets narrative wheels turning, only for her rambling monologue to leave the viewer even more perplexed than before. “I am such a fool,” she says. “People’s lives are not like dreams. But if I hadn’t come, I would still be wondering.”
“All I’m telling you is tales.” “Paradise Lost” abounds with dialogue like this, ostensibly disposable yet also carefully calibrated to clang around in viewers’ skulls long into the movie. Little is left to chance in Gomes’s gloomy, bone-dry vision of Lisbon; the vocabulary is rich with charcoal silhouettes and cautious camera approaches. We know immediately that Aurora is glamorous, important, memorable (Santa’s description—“Miss Aurora is special, has a tendency to exaggerate, a lot of imagination.”) That said, without disputing her story, Pilar and Santa load her into the car and head back to the city. Increasingly senile, Aurora claims Santa is practicing black magic to turn her daughter against her and preventing her from getting sleep medication. Santa’s quiet stoicism speaks to a life of servitude that never blossomed into personal liberation—although Gomes grants her a scene of solitary pleasure, smoking cigarettes and reading Robinson Crusoe. (Later on, her English tutor, teaching a class of white 50-somethings in a community center, finds Santa’s choice of literature “Extraordinary!”)
Pilar’s most significant moment, perhaps, comes while she’s participating in a “Shame on the U.N.” demonstration in the Rossio, Lisbon’s main square. As the frame narrows in on her during the protest, she says a quiet prayer to herself, the conclusion of which is marked by the blowing out of a candle. Her mission to protect Aurora takes on a holy signature. Soon she finds herself in the sticks, tracking down a man named Gian Luca Ventura, whose name and address Aurora has provided her with deathly urgency. She finds him. And as the frame descends down an escalator into a plastic rainforest-cafeteria walled in by glass—a faded inscription reads “BANK PATRONS ONLY”—Gian Luca rolls the narrative back to the aforementioned territory, nestled below Mount Tabu, where Aurora spent her young womanhood. It turns out that, while married to an affably dopey exporter, she had an affair with Gian Luca, then a rakish wanderer, bored by life back in Europe. In ways large (switching from 35mm to academy-ratio 16mm) and small (fixed-width modernist font to denote months in the first half, an elegant serif in the second), Gomes indicates early and often that these stories are worlds apart.
While depriving us of expository dialogue and character-building miniature conflict-resolution patterns, Gian Luca’s voiceover narration sets Tabu on a path of disarming clarity. Like the adorable little crocodile who grows up glassy-eyed, only to slink back into the Mozambique river, the tryst between Gian Luca and Aurora can’t grow too much before it needs scuppering. Theirs is a conflict within boundaries of unimaginable comfort, hinging on, and looping the audience into, a quotidian gesture that’s critical to to the continuation of any imperial project: denial. Gomes’s true subject is less the disparity between his whites and and his Africans than the disparity between spectatorship and awareness, the all-too-willing sacrifice of the latter for the former. Above all else, the camera this time trusts body language, ambient sound—clearly added in postproduction—and Deleuze’s notion of the frame as a “closed system.” Again, juxtaposing the halves is crucial, inevitable: if “Paradise Lost” posits contemporary Portugal as a long string of dead ends, “Paradise” is an oasis of epistemological straightforwardness. (Which means, among other things, that there are no close-ups of black people.)
Approaching Tabu, every film critic and his dog has pushed saudade, the untranslatable Portuguese term for phantom nostalgia—nostalgia for persons, places, or experiences that have been lost without closure. In Gomes’s case it’s not hard to imagine what’s missing: Portugal’s hyper-conservative government, it must be noted, “abolished” the Ministry of Culture, a once-robust bedrock of financing for him and other auteurs, including Teresa Villaverde and João César Monteiro. The ascendancy of private capital that followed E.U. membership in the 20th century has become a denial, not just of pleasure but of art, in the 21st. So in a funny way we can consider Gomes, working for the first time without government support, something of an activist auteur. It may sound like I’ve betrayed all of Tabu’s secrets, but rest assured the filmmaking is so strong that every shot invites repeat visits. His innovation is not some romantic trip back in time—which is, of course, the supreme invitation of Western cinema—but rather, the hypothesis that such a trip is impossible without prolonging an illicit affair.
STEVE MACFARLANE is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer based in Ridgewood, New York. His book No Accidents: The Films and World of Nancy Meyers is being published in 2021 by Topos Press.