“Cinema bored her to death”. That is the declaration made by one character of another in Miguel Gomes’ startling Tabu, the breakout film of 2012. And it’s an apt declaration, given Gomes’ focus in the piece: the death of the cinema in it’s original iteration. Fret not though, for Tabu isn’t some sojourn lament for a world gone by. It’s more of that most unattainable ideal: the celebratory funeral of a well-loved friend.
In interviews Gomes has spoken of Tabu being his last chance to shoot on celluloid and of making a film “in the way that films were made at the beginning”, suggesting that connectivity is of the utmost importance to the Portuguese filmmaker . While a crass declaration that Tabu is a “love letter to the cinema” would be somewhat dramatic, it would also be somewhat appropriate. It’s a stirring and exciting movie, and one inspired by the history of it’s own medium, and a quiet rally cry for a deserved cause, albeit one arguably already lost. And yet it remains hopeful, never hopeless, in spite of the inevitability of the end point of the wider issue.
Construction is key. Temporally removed and ground solely in imagination, Tabu is concerned with the memory, and in turn the roots of storytelling itself. The film begins with a prologue that is openly assembled, the resulting text being one that exists within the world of the film itself. Recounting the story of a doomed figure damaged by a lost love, this prologue spins a myth that forms the framework of the tale about to follow. Gomes borrows a number of things from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film Tabu: A Tale Of The South Seas, one of which is the two-act structure, with each part named for those of the Murnau film (‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise’), while elsewhere a number of the themes from the older film are transplanted over. In this prologue (which is, for the purposes of this piece, an aside to the main feature, in terms of how structure is being discussed) Gomes pays tribute to the Murnau film by bestowing a similar fate upon the protagonist of this work as that of the hero of the 1931 film, albeit highlighting the more spiritual result in legend with greater keenness (Gomes is aware of the natural echo of mythology that time lends to cinema). This “legend”, while the work of the cinema screen (within the context of Gomes’ movie), remains an acknowledgement point throughout the course of the rest of the picture. The base themes touched upon simply here are spun out on a grander canvas later.
Tabu is split in to two acts. The first, ‘Paradise Lost’, is set in the contemporary now, while ‘Paradise’, the second part, takes place on the eve of the decolonisation of Africa. The first section of the film holds a scene in which two of the main characters of ‘Paradise Lost’ sit at a table that’s held on a spinning surface. This sequence personifies this section of the film: Long takes and a sense of being lulled in to a dream, ‘Paradise Lost’ is slower in pace, less urgent and performance driven when compared to it’s sequential counterpart. As an exercise in atmosphere it sets the tone perfectly. The characters on-screen are reacting to events that haven’t played out (on-screen) yet, with precognition almost leading the way. Catholic and colonial guilt drive the tale (the recurring image of a crudely drawn ape motif appears several times in the film itself, while Aurora’s dream revolves around the animal), yet the film never feels overtly preoccupied with such fare, much in the same way that it never feels over-informed by cinematic homage. Similar to the spinning table sequence, we also find ourselves placed within a static coach for an extended period of time, while the road plays out behind. Elsewhere a rain storm lashes windows while the foreground activity revolves, pun intended, solely around the rather meandering activity of a set of dishes being washed in real-time. As with the ultimate tale at hand, the players in the first act of Tabu are outshone by the activities *behind* them. We’re seeing their reactions literally play out before the actions (of ‘Paradise’).
The director is constantly reminding the audience that the tale being told in ‘Paradise’ is one of no real time or place, and one ground in the subjectivity of old romance long after the events have fallen. Gunshots are lensed like pictures from Hollywood movies and rain runs down the lens of a camera, while elsewhere The Ramones play their 1980 hit ‘Baby I Love You’ as children wear football shirts bearing the logo’s of mobile phone brands that didn’t exist until fifty years after the time of the yarn being spun. Gomes subverts the law of the jungle to great wit. It’s apt that Ventura’s grand and romantic tale of love lost in the jungle takes place in a cafe/mall space designed to mimic the jungle itself, itself a nod to the way in which the world of ‘Paradise Lost’ is just as manufactured and as great a product of the movie magic as anything in ‘Paradise’. Structurally the film echoes this temporally adjunct approach. Filtered through Ventura, the love affair at the centre of the film becomes an “adventure”, with a three-month hiatus made to feel as though it lasts a lifetime.
A variety of filmic techniques are employed by Gomes throughout the picture. From the rich 35mm of ‘Paradise Lost’, to the grainy 16mm of ‘Paradise’, the director even employs the use of Super 8mm and basic animation at one point. Removing the diegetic dialogue from ‘Paradise’, while leaving the rest of the soundtrack in tact encourages the dreamlike feeling of the section. Speaking over the frame at times, ala Welles, Godard or Truffaut, Gomes’ own voice is employed to provide another semblance of authority to the scenario.
The most significant figure in the picture might just be Mario. A man who redefines Phil Spector songs and once wanted to be a priest, one couldn’t help but think that there was a hint of Martin Scorsese, the cinema’s great mainstream advocate, in the character. It is essential then that this particular character must die at the end of the section named ‘Paradise’. As Mario passes, Aurora’s daughter is born, a figure never seen on screen but one whose invisible presence is felt throughout the temporally earlier portion of the film (‘Paradise Lost’). One might theorise that the daughter is an analog, pun intended, for digital, while Mario is celluloid, his body unceremoniously dumped and his murder covered up. Mario represents the truth, his image manipulated by the course of what followed (the child, digital). That his death sparks the war that closes the picture reinforces the idea that Tabu is indeed a call to arms.