Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

Miguel Gomes’ cinephilic tendencies are embedded into the very title of Tabu, taken from F.W. Murnau’s final film and modeled after its bifurcated structure. Black-and-white photography, visibly shot on film instead of digital, only exacerbate the cinematic artifice. Yet the Portuguese director’s aims go well beyond referential touches, and the one on-screen character linked to filmmaking in any way is described in narration as finding movies trivial. Tabu dabbles in trivial matters of its own, but they are played against themselves as Gomes traces the ennui and isolation of the first half back to surprisingly poltiical roots in the second.

A hint lies in an enigmatic prologue that precedes the two stories. A melancholic colonialist stands about idly with sad eyes as African servants labor around him. A Murnau-esque smooth track over hilly terrain speaks to the man’s detached boredom as a narrator (Gomes himself) talks of a lost love that tugs at his heart. The segment ends with the colonialist transformed into an equally sad crocodile, a strange image that will return in the film’s second half.

First, though, Gomes moves to present-day Lisbon, where a Catholic social activist, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), attends to a dementia-stricken woman named Aurora (Laura Soveral). Soveral plays the old woman like a mad specter of old wealth, clad in oversized, designer sunglasses and an ostentatious fur coat. Underneath her amusing caricature, however, are darker impulses, including a gambling addiction that has left her penniless and the racism that manifests itself openly and, in a dream about “talking monkeys,” obliquely. Gomes hones in on Aurora’s rapport with her Cape-Verdean maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso, who quietly seethes with terrifying intensity), using the old lady’s frustrations at her daughter abandoning her and leaving a stranger in her stead to bring out her bigotry. In one moment, Gomes even makes ironic commentary on Aurora’s privileged racism, plunging Santa into shadow to make her even darker as Aurora flips out on her in a two-shot and makes open reference to her maid’s race. Then the director cuts to follow Aurora as she exasperatedly walks out of frame, trapping her in a white sunbeam that subverts the stereotypical moral split of black and white by illuminating what a disgusting person she is.

But she is not the only target of criticism communicated through Rui Poças’ immaculate cinematgoraphy. The first half floats in soft focus, an obvious signifier of the characters’ isolation but meaningful in how broadly the focal lengths are used. Gomes does not simply film Aurora in shallow focus but Pilar as well, cutting the well-meaning righteousness from under her protests and prayers. An early shot in what appears to be one of those restaurants that revolves around a skyline makes for a surreal swirl of blurred, shifting blotches behind the medium-close-up of Aurora as she describes the aforementioned monkey dream, but reverse shots of Pilar only mildly dampen the effect of the background, trapping her in the same headspace. Later, Gomes plays a mild joke on the convictions of Pilar’s activism, framing a close-up on her laptop as she closes out browser tabs before going to sleep. With every click, an article with a provocative political headline on poverty or war is replaced by another. The last tab, though, is a game of solitaire, a reminder that a liberal activist in the West still has comforts and distractions from the Fight.

Those who do not have that luxury can be seen after Aurora passes and an old lover, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), returns to relate the story of how he and the departed met. Ventura sits with Pilar and Santa in a restaurant decked out in jungle décor, and as he starts his story, the film suddenly jumps across time, space, and film stock to settle back in Africa in 16mm as the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) settles in with her husband (Ivo Muller), only for Ventura (Carloto Cotta) to appear and cause havoc.

The second half represents a slyly comic high in anti-colonial critique. Silent but for Santo’s narration and some diegetic noise (added in such a way as to seem non-diegetic), this portion of the film, titled “Paradise” to complement the first half’s “Paradise Lost,” traces the Western, modernist ennui of the first half to the imperial superiority and colonial wistfulness that informs it. Containing echoes of details scattered throughout the first half, this section is as much a stylized version of Aurora’s backstory as a straightforward piece of context. Gomes even shoots the young lovers’ interactions like a classical silent movie, with faces you can read at 100 paces (especially now that the focus depth increases), wild gestures and melodramatic action.

Less stylized are the shots of the Africans around the white colonials, tending fields or even sharing the frame with the whites and contrasting their stoic, impassive faces with the flourishes of the love triangle. A revolt simmers among them for most of the film, fed by outrage at the ridiculous and destructive solipsism of the romantic drama around them and the climactic act of the triangle acts as the final straw for those who cannot bear to let themselves be ruled by such people any longer as Aurora retreats back to Portugal to eventually pour all of her racial obliviousness out onto one poor woman. Tabu ends in the past, but it offers a radical recontextualization of the present, one that provides understanding for its addled petit-bourgeois elder and complicated new levels of withering criticism of her, and the mood of nationalist regret expressed through her.

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