A rule of thumb has emerged at this year’s fest: if it’s in 4:3, run – don’t walk. The boxy aspect ratio has already corralled to great effect the putrid fug of Aleksander Sokurov’s Faust, where it served to cramp the vile against the viler, leaving its wretched central double act to stumble, clamber and grope their way through a claustrophobic phantasmagoria of all-too-human squalor, literally rubbing off on one another as they went.
And tonight brings the premiere of Andrea Arnold’s sensuous and pleasingly oblique re-consideration of
To this list add Tabu, Miguel Gomes’ rich and quietly brilliant official competition entry from Portugal, which premiered (to mixed reception, it must be said) on Sunday night. For mine, it’s the best of the 23 features I’ve yet seen from this year’s program. It’s also my favourite film of the year to date.
Borrowing its title, spilt narrative format and even its chapter names (first ‘Paradise Lost,’ then ‘Paradise’) from Murnau’s 1931 Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Gomes’ film is ostensibly a movie-lover’s movie, but not of the kowtowing, vacuously reverential variety. It’s a film prompted by a living, breathing cinephilia, rather than the fetishistic trophy-casing of Tarantino, for instance, who tends to plunder the films he ‘homages’ with a brattish self-entitlement. Here, the 4:3 format and black-and-white photography is one level nostalgic stylistic throwback. But here, as such, it poignant doubles as a medium of memory and imagination for two of its protagonists.
Following a wry prologue involving a bereaved 19th century explorer, a ghostly woman and a melancholic crocodile, Tabu focuses first on three woman neighbours in modern-day Lisbon: Pilar (Teresa Madruga), Aurora (Laura Soveral) and her live-in maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Shot crisply in 35mm, this half of the film finds old Aurora slipping into senility, having gambled away her savings. Increasingly convinced that Santa has made her the object of a voodoo curse, the kindly and long-suffering Pilar does her best to placate her, in between dates to the movies with an aging painter. Then, something happens, and Pilar is sent searching for a figure from Aurora’s past, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo).
Here, the film makes a leap that many people—judging by the chatter on Twitter after Sunday’s premiere—seemed unwilling to join it for: it skips back five decades or so to detail Aurora’s youth (now played by Ana Moreira) on a colonial farm in Portuguese Mozambique, and her doomed love affair with Ventura (Carloto Cotta). This chapter—which aesthetically reverts to the gorgeous 16mm of the prologue, with its cloudy motes of grain—forgoes standard dialogue entirely, relying for near an hour on Santo’s eloquent, soporifically-intoned narration to impart its story. The ingeniously expressive sound design foregrounds certain diegetic noises—pebbles plopping into water, the junior thunderclaps of rifle fire—by omitting all other ambient sound. Needless to say, it’s a film about memory: its selectiveness, its obstinacy and its inevitable mutability. But it’s one about guilt and remorse (cultural, individual), the sheer joyous solipsistic foolishness of youth, and the very human desire for romance—and how that desire has a way of imposing itself over our consciousness like a filter—too. In many ways, it’s this year’s answer to the equally lush and beautiful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and will no doubt prove as cherished in certain quarters.
To parse it now, here, before most audiences have had the opportunity to experience it for themselves, would be to do Tabu a disservice. It’s a film whose true pleasure and ingenuity resides both in its execution and its carefully modulated subtext. For now, I’ll say this: when you see it—and you should see it, at the first opportunity you’re given —keep an eye on what Santa’s reading early on, and an ear out for the first appearance on the soundtrack of The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’. While it requires its audience’s full attention, Tabu is not a remote or willfully challenging film. On the contrary; for me, it felt more like an invitation.