Tabu has been a critical success with reactions to it, first at Berlin and then on release here in the UK, that are similar in some ways (but very different in others) to those that greeted The Artist at Cannes last year. It’s another film in beautiful Black and White, shot on 35mm and 16mm film and presented in Academy format (1.37: 1). Part of it is played without dialogue (but with some sound effects and supposedly diegetic music). But overall it is much more interesting and, for me at least, much more entertaining than The Artist.
The original Tabu was a 1931 romance/drama or melodrama created by the pairing of F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty – in some ways a very odd combination. It tells the tale of two lovers (local people not colonialists) on a South Seas island who pursue their love despite a taboo placed upon it – with the expected tragic conclusion. That film was in two parts: ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. Miguel Gomes’ 2012 Portuguese film reverses the order of the two parts and adds a prologue which in turn leads into ‘Paradise Lost’ in which we meet a ‘good woman’, Pilar, who finds herself having to attend to her elderly neighbour Aurora in contemporary Lisbon. Aurora was once a wealthy settler in Mozambique and aspects of her past are starting to haunt her. In the second part of the film, ‘Paradise’, Pilar imagines the kind of life that Aurora led while she listens to Aurora’s ex-lover from the early 1960s. Gianluca tells us about their affair in a voiceover as the story unfolds on screen without dialogue.
I’ve seen a quote from Gomes where he suggests that there is no deep meaning in the film and several critics go along with the idea that this is a playful film that moves from humanist drama/social realism in ‘Paradise Lost’ to sometimes comic surrealism in ‘Paradise’. For me, however, the whole narrative appeared to be about the colonial experience. This is a very rich text and Gomes must be a witty man as he makes a number of jokes which play on the conventions of the colonial melodrama and the specifics of Portuguese colonialism as well as the general colonial activities of Europeans in Africa. I’ll try and explain some of the ways in which Gomes presents this ‘colonial imagination’.
The film’s prologue refers to a trait of European colonial narratives, especially about Africa and the ‘heart of the continent’. What we see is then revealed to be a film being watched (seemingly on her own in a cinema) by Pilar who we later realise is a single woman with an interest in human rights issues around the world. She is, we assume, an internationalist Catholic, at one point dealing with a ‘Polish nun’ who may be coming to visit her in Lisbon and at other times perusing websites or taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Yet Pilar is still subject to the circulation of colonial narratives within which Aurora is forever trapped. Aurora has a carer/housekeeper, an intriguing character called Santa. Is Santa from Mozambique? Aspects of the narrative suggest not. In a revealing scene we see Santa reading Robinson Crusoe and then later attending a class in which she tells the teacher what she has been reading. “Extraordinary!” is the teacher’s response – and indeed it is. What should we make of this? One suggestion is that Santa is ‘free’ of the past and able to study it dispassionately, while Aurora is still caught up in it. Santa isn’t a naïve young woman. She’s older and wiser and carries out her duties in a professional way, betraying no sense of the legacy of a colonial relationship.
This reading of the Santa character is complemented by aspects of the style of the ‘Paradise’ story. Set, we presume, in the 1950s and early 1960s we see the young Aurora as a teenager and then as a young married woman, having met her husband, a tea planter, at university. This second story is filmed in 16mm which has more grain, slightly less definition and range of grey shades. The overall effect is to emphasise the history/memory feel of the experience. Yet, in the story that is presented, Gomes deliberately separates the white settlers and the local Africans. The settlers are shown in ‘authentic’ 1960s costumes and act as if they are in a historical drama – whereas the servants and the villagers/tea pickers etc. are shot in an almost documentary style, complete with 21st century clothes including the ubiquitous football shirts (I’m sure one small boy was wearing a Samsung shirt) found everywhere in contemporary Africa. This surreal juxtaposition adds to the dreamlike, playful nature of the film but also points to questions about the history of colonialism in Portuguese society.
I was struck by the similarity of some scenes in ‘Paradise’ to those in the Claire Denis film Chocolat (1988). In the Denis film we see the antics of the white colonialists through the eyes of the child of a French colonial administrator. In ‘Paradise’ there seems to be a similar slightly distanced gaze. I definitely felt a ‘difference’ in the colonialist culture represented in this film compared to those in British cinema. There is no presence of the British-style District Officer and none of the confrontational exchanges between settlers and servants/workers. The settler lifestyle, at least for the women seems languid and mildly decadent. Yet Mozambique and Angola were at this time preparing for the conclusion of the independence struggle which would culminate in the 25 April 1974 Revolution in Portugal and the subsequent independence of Mozambique along with Angola, Guinea-Bissau and other Portuguese colonial possessions.
I need to watch this film again to appreciate every aspect of its very clever and subtle presentation. This is another of this year’s crop of left-field movies from unusual film production contexts. Plaudits to director, writers, actors and cinematographer – great music too. Portugal joins Canada and Hong Kong as winners in our personal poll of this year’s best films.