Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto may have turned former film critic Miguel Gomes into the "next international big thing" of Portuguese cinema after Manoel de Oliveira, João César Monteiro and Pedro Costa; but its exquisitely stylized follow-up Tabu looks set to confirm and expand such a characterization. A giant leap forward for a director that succumbed once too often to a stubbornly inscrutable private joke in his previous shorts and two features, it is also a film that is nothing like them - or, for that matter, anything else around at the moment - while maintaining a strong connecting thread to both A Cara que Mereces and Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto.
Shot on film in dreamy, Academy-ratio black and white courtesy of DP Rui Poças, it's a cheeky, irreverent but deeply heartfelt take on the tropes of classic cinema and of exotic adventure films, expressing a love of artifice as a way of digging deeper into the truth. It is also a poignant, melancholy look at a glamorous past that never was that glamorous to begin with and the troublesome colonial history of mid-20th century Portugal. As all of Mr. Gomes' previous films, Tabu is a game of two halves, programmatically named "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost": it begins in present-day Lisbon as disappointed activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga) witnesses the final days of her neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly compulsive gambler and superstitious dowager haunted by some past sin in the days when she had a farm in Africa.
At the halfway point, a dying Aurora calls for a mysterious Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), leading into a long flashback narrated by Mr. Espírito Santo in a regal voiceover sublimely timed to the languid rhythm and flow of a melodrama that plays in essence like a silent movie set in 1960s Mozambique. There the younger Aurora (now played by Ana Moreira) led an adventurous life and leads a torrid affair with the younger Ventura (Carloto Cotta), its stylized passions standing in contrast to the first half's desolate, lonely dead-ends in anonymous urban jungles.
Mr. Gomes never truly lets go of the pointed irreverence that marked his two previous features, of the deadpan humour that occasionally leavens the oppressively potent passions (a recurring gag has a melancholy pet crocodile known as Crocodile Dandy). This is fine as it goes but occasionally too clever for its own good, jolting the viewer from the enveloping, hypnotic trance Mr. Poças' dazzling cinematography and the director's loving but never gratuitous cinephilia construct. (Silent stylist F. W. Murnau is referenced throughout, not only in the film's title and the character's name - Aurora, besides being a current name, is also the Portuguese word for "sunrise" and the local title for Mr. Murnau's classic Sunrise; but Mr. Gomes has also quoted Hollywood's backlot safari movies and the Tarzan series as references.) It also underlines the sense of provocation and us-against-the-world stand that Mr. Gomes and his regular crew made a point of in the previous features, their desire to create something uniquely personal that stands separate from whatever main stream Portuguese filmmaking is working in at whatever moment.
But those inside winks, irritating as they may be for some viewers, cannot hide the fact this is a gorgeously shot, admirably performed, utterly accomplished piece of work that marks a giant stride for a director that has grown up into one of the premier modern European filmmakers. Tabu is a wondrous film.
Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Henrique Espírito Santo, Carloto Cotta, Isabel Cardoso, Ivo Müller, Manuel Mesquita.
Director, Miguel Gomes; screenplay, Mr. Gomes, Mariana Ricardo; cinematography (b&w), Rui Poças; art director, Bruno Duarte; costume designer, Sílvia Grabowski; editors, Telmo Churro, Mr. Gomes; producers, Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar (O Som e a Fúria, Komplizen Film, Gullane Produções, Shellac Sud, ZDF/ARTE), Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France, 2012, 118 minutes.
Screened: private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), February 8th 2012.