Phantoms in the African veldt, a melancholic “intrepid explorer,” a haunted crocodile: these are the enchanting ingredients of a film watched in a cinema by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in the opening moments of ‘Paradise Lost,’ the first part of Portuguese director and co-scenarist Miguel Gomes’ gorgeous, seductive and strange Tabu. Pilar is in her 50s; she lives alone in an apartment complex in Lisbon. Her neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral), is in her 80s, seems to be suffering from dementia, indulges in gambling binges, recounts elaborate dreams featuring monkeys, and is paranoid and abusive toward her stoic African housekeeper Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso, so memorable in Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth).
Aurora’s health takes a turn for the worse, and once divested of her clothes and sunglasses and grooming she begins to take on a very different air—there are close-ups of her in hospital that recall Dreyer. She asks Pilar to track down an old man she’s never mentioned before: Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), the name itself laced with the idea of adventure. Pilar finds Ventura, and Ventura tells her a story, something that happened 50 years ago, in an unspecified African country, involving Aurora and him. From here we enter Tabu’s second part: ‘Paradise.’ Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), a birdy beauty and an excellent shot with a rifle, is married to a wealthy expatriate plantation owner who can do a nice waltz, becomes pregnant with his child, but falls in love with young Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a moustachioed, leather hat-wearing, womanizing drummer in a band that specializes in Phil Spector covers and for a time found it profitable to play private gigs for the Portuguese colonial elite—Ventura wants Aurora to be his little baby, but she’s about to have someone else’s. There are many parties where firearms are always handy. There are many secret rendezvous, and separations full of love letters. Riddled with decadence and desire, ‘Paradise’ is as rapturous and fevered, at times frenetic and tumbling forth, as ‘Paradise Lost’ is meditative and methodical, resigned, with characters often introduced with their backs or profiles to camera. ‘Paradise’ embraces elements of silent melodrama, literary monologue and pure montage: there is no audible dialogue, but we hear select sounds—the sounds Ventura remembers?—along with a dreamy piano score, and we are guided through all of it by Ventura’s wearied memories of doomed love.
Appropriating the title and reversing the diptych structure of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 south seas romance, Gomes’ third feature is stunningly photographed, formally fascinating, critically engaged with history—he likes to describe Tabu as a dysfunctional version of Out of Africa—and, despite the solipsism and cruelty of the lovers, it is unspeakably moving. It premiered at Berlin, where it won the FIPRESCI and Alfred Bauer Awards and was nominated for the Golden Bear. And it was one of my favourites at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had the opportunity to speak with Gomes at the friendly offices of Films We Like for a too-brief but very enjoyable interview. Tabu is currently showing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is about to start a full theatrical run in Edmonton, courtesy of Metro Cinema.
JB: What was the initial inspiration for Tabu?
MG: Someone in my family told me about her neighbor, a senile old woman, like Aurora. She had a strange relationship with her African housekeeper. Some of the scenes in the first part of Tabu come directly from stories told to me by this relative. These kinds of characters, older, lonely women, don’t tend to have very romantic lives. So we have this story about neighbours doing relatively everyday things, and then, halfway through, in contrast to this, we have the second part, the intrusion of a completely different space with completely different characters. One character, of course, was in the first part, but now we see her 50 years before, doing what feels almost like the opposite of what she did in the first part. In the first part there is no mention of Africa; it’s almost a hidden thing. You can see some masks in Aurora’s house, but she never talks about Africa. She only discusses Africa when she gets confused. That’s when she starts to talk about the crocodile, and people probably think she’s just crazier than ever. I think Africa is the taboo of the first part, this colonial past. It exists in the Portuguese society nowadays, but it’s underneath, in the social subconscious.
JB: Given the nature of the second part—the nature of the story and especially of the storyteller—it makes perfect sense to me that African characters are largely relegated to the background. But I wonder if this was ever a concern for you, telling an African story in which black Africans play what is largely an accessory role.
MG: I wanted to make something like a ghost film, a ghost film about an extinguishing society, dead or on the verge of being dead. So we have these white people having fun and killing each other, and at the end of the film, at the melodramatic climax, Africa takes over. Literally. The Phil Spector songs disappear and you hear only African music. From that moment on all the white characters disappear. One of the problems I have with fiction about colonial times is that it is too often didactic, inventing characters who come out and say, “Hey, these colonials are not good guys. They lived in a completely wrong system.” Of course, I share these opinions, but I don’t think I’m obliged to put things that way. I need to tell a story with the confidence of knowing that people have some sense that the colonial system was an unjust system. I think Tabu in any case makes very clear that something is wrong. This guy is making parties, playing Russian roulette—the people are kind of deranged. But I don’t have to spell it out for you by having a guy beating an African kid or something. Too many films make a big effort to say things that to me seem pretty obvious.
JB: It says something about the tone of Tabu that every act of ostensible intervention in Africa undertaken by the Europeans seems either ineffectual or doomed, whether it’s Pilar and her altruistic pursuits, your intrepid explorer, who really just seems to be searching for a place to die, or the lovers, who, solipsistic as their actions are, seem to have sealed their fate to some degree by coming to Africa in the first place. It’s like a curse.
MG: Yes, though I think these are different things. Pilar’s activities don’t go very far. She can’t fix the world and neither can Obama; neither can the stupid politicians that are in charge nowadays in Europe. The world doesn’t seem to be going anywhere nice. There’s a kind of impotence to what Pilar does. But this curse that you have in the explorer story and also in the story of the lovers… You know, I made this film-within-the-film at the beginning of Tabu, romantic, almost baroque, as a way of signaling what we will eventually return to later.
JB: I admire the structure of Tabu very much. I wonder if the structure itself helped galvanize you.
MG: Honestly, making a film for me is so organic that maybe I’m lying when I try to answer these questions after it’s been made. The script was in the garbage can by the midpoint in the production. We couldn’t afford to film the things we’d written. So the second part was improvised. We knew that we’d have these lovers, that Aurora would be at this plantation, that she would get pregnant—things like this. We knew the basic story, but we couldn’t shoot the scenes we’d wanted to for lack of money. What we did then was create a smaller group from within the original crew, which was already very small—it was me and three people—and we called ourselves “the central committee.” The job of the central committee was to come up with something like a menu of scenes. Like in a Chinese restaurant: “Number 122: Pool Scene.” It was very abstract. They actors didn’t know what any of this meant. We simply proposed activities, and made up scenes all the time. We’d complete a day of shooting and then come up with some scenes for the next, reacting to what we had filmed before. So I can say that from the beginning there were two parts, working with oppositions: old and young, loneliness and love, everyday life and a very cinematic life, dialogue and the absence of dialogue. We had that structure in place, but how it progressed to the final thing we have now came about largely through the process of making it. The voice-over in the second part, for instance, was only conceived during production. I worked with my co-writer and my editor at the same time; we would edit what we’d shot while at the same time writing and reading out the voice-over. Something that would normally occur at the beginning of the process—writing—occurred only at the end of the process.
JB: That’s so interesting, because Tabu ultimately feels like an homage to oral storytelling—something very rare in movies. Ventura’s voice-over narration changes how we absorb everything. I think of that scene where Aurora and Venture are hiking in the jungle and then stop and gaze directly at the camera. You feel as though the young Ventura is looking at the old Ventura as he tells his story. There’s the feeling that memory and the process of narration is changing how everything unfolds.
MG: You’re a very good viewer.
JB: Thanks. It’s a pretty fascinating movie to view. And listen to. Do you feel invested in this idea of oral storytelling?
MG: I enjoyed having Ventura tell his story in this kind of strange way. It’s suggested that he might be a little senile too. He tells the story like it was in a book. It’s strange because he’s telling the story to two women, the other women from the first part of the film, but in a way it’s like he’s speaking to himself. Or to the viewers. You don’t know. But this idea of oral storytelling also comes out of having Santa reading Robinson Crusoe. I guess in our lives we have a need for stories and romance. So the second part of the film feels like a gift to the characters in the first.
JB: Ventura doesn’t really enter the film until after Aurora dies, so in a sense it’s like he’s taking the baton from her.
MG: He’s reinventing Aurora. At the start she just seems like this old woman with Alzheimer’s and probably not very interesting. And then she becomes a starlet, a character from an American film or the ’40s or ’50s. Only the narration by Ventura allows for this. That was there from the beginning, the desire to take an old lady that no one cares about and then turn her into Katherine Hepburn.
JB: Which is part of what allows Tabu to give us both a generous dose of romantic cinema and a critique of romantic cinema.
MG: Yes. You can do these things at the same time. To have this fatigued world and this exotic world. It’s nice to have both of those things, no?