Perhaps in response to bombastic mainstream Hollywood, international auteurs often veer toward minimalism — quieter emotions, slower tempos, a tightly defined era and setting. Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes is clearly a man of the art house — his new film, Tabu, which opens this week, was shot on 16mm black-and-white film stock, for starters — but he's also interested in, as he says, "big stories, big emotions." And rather than adhere to a particular style or preoccupation, his films are omnivorous and alchemical, compound concoctions of tragicomedy, docu-fantasy, and bleeding heart satire.
"I think you don't have to choose," he said while in town for Tabu's screening at the New York Film Festival in October. "Why not have melodramas, forbidden love affairs, melancholic crocodiles, bands playing Phil Spector songs. Why not?"
Gomes likens Tabu to a Frankenstein monster with the stitches showing. It employs all that Gomes listed, plus three time frames spanning two continents, to tell a colonialist story from the outside in and the inside out.
Part one, "Paradise Lost," takes place in present-day Lisbon, where lonely, charitable Pilar has become preoccupied with the mental deterioration of her elderly neighbor, Aurora, a faded beauty who is convinced her African nurse, Santa, is conspiring to kill her. In part two, "Paradise," Aurora's old paramour, Ventura, recounts their doomed love affair as colonists in an unspecified African nation. The never-explained guilty consciences of the first part are laid bare by the shameless dramatics of the second. Gomes shows us how life was far from paradise for Aurora's servants without alienating us from Aurora or dulling the emotional impact of the trials of his young romantics. Shot on 16mm black-and-white and presented without on-screen dialogue during its fully narrated second half, Tabu manages to be both classical and modern, ironic and heartbreaking.
Although his mother grew up in Angola, the Lisbon-raised Gomes had never visited Africa until location scouting for Tabu. The film germinated when he met a group of aging Portuguese pop musicians nostalgic for their time in prerevolutionary Mozambique. "The Africa in the film is more like the mythology of Africa that was produced by colonialism — and, of course, by cinema," he says. His idea was to overlay the spectacle of Aurora and Ventura "playing a deranged version of Out of Africa" against the contemporary landscape, which serves as a deadpan counterpoint to the fabricated Euro-entitled melodrama. "There were four actors who I brought with me to Mozambique, and they are the fiction. I can draw a mustache on the guy, can do fancy '60s haircuts with the actress. They are the lie," he says. "But they're great lies."
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Gomes, 40, a onetime film critic with three features and a bundle of gloriously uncategorizable shorts to his name, has always made acknowledging cinematic artifice a crucial aspect of his work. In the semi-silent short Kalkitos (2002), intertitles and warped musical cues (the film credits Gomes as a "DJ") convey dialogue, while adults pantomime as overdeveloped 10-year-olds — an idea further explored in his first feature, the musical comedy-cum-surrealistic-fable The Face You Deserve (2004), which sticks a group of middle-aged lost boys together in a secluded playhouse. His second feature, Our Beloved Month of August (2008), toggles between candid footage and bogus "making of" sequences, creating art of questions of documentary versus fiction.
For Tabu's "Paradise" sequence, Gomes erects numerous filters between the story and the viewer, from that voiceover and lack of dialogue to an unpredictable deployment of sound. "For obtaining an emotional response from the viewer, theoretically I was doing everything wrong," Gomes says of the film. But collectively — improbably — those distancing devices close the gap. "You're seeing lies, but nevertheless start to believe in and are moved by the lies. I think cinema has the ability to restore some ability to believe unbelievable things," he says. "I think that's the greatness of cinema."
Gomes doesn't put too much stock in his apprenticeship as a critic, but he found it helpful for making clear "why the hell I liked some things and why I hated other things in film." The fruits of this are apparent when exploring Tabu's emotionally intricate, narratively nimble kin, from Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms and F.W. Murnau's Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, to Jean Renoir's underrated colonialist-humanist masterpiece The River ("I think maybe it's my favorite film," Gomes says). But he's not interested in making films that are self-consciously referential: "The quoting game, it doesn't lead you very far." Indeed, Tabu casts its movie-mad spell not through overt homages but via immersion in cinematic history, tropes, and forms. "It's like a general impression of a whole continent of films that somehow I've seen and digested, instinctively flowing from me to the film."
Those impressions have never been limited to other films for Gomes, who has long made music, particularly lyrical pop, a defining aspect of his art ("Everybody needs fiction, and fiction means books and cinema and songs," he says). In part one of Tabu, flickers of an unseen film illuminate Pilar's weeping face as a Portuguese cover of Phil Spector's "Be My Baby" plays. That song repeats in part two as a recording by Ventura's African touring band. The song's recurrence gives both sequences operatic and melancholic power. The point isn't the transmigrated reference, but the new feeling given to it. "Godard said it already — or Sam Fuller said it in Godard's Pierrot le Fou. Cinema is about emotions. That's the aim of the whole thing. You just have to invent a new way to get to the same spot."