BEIRUT: A small, bearded man in a pith helmet stands in the midst of the bush. As he stares at the camera, local laborers in “native” garb bustle about bearing loads. The voice-over narration describes how this intrepid explorer has been compelled to “Darkest Africa” by the king of Portugal.In fact, he’s here to escape the memory of his dead lover. Unfortunately his lover has other ideas. Her morose ghost visits him at nighttime, saying it’s impossible to flee a broken heart.
The next day the explorer waves goodbye to the camera and leaps into a crocodile-infested stream. His laborers look on in horror, as the narrator intones, and, in response, they burst into traditional song and dance. As expressions of horror go, it all seems pretty cheerful.
Shot in glorious black-and-white on 16mm film, the prologue to Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu” (2012) evokes the memory of antique silent film footage. Set back at a remove from its subject, the camera work seems ironic, the earnest narration (even for those innocent of Portuguese) deadpan. The entire episode is delivered a bit like a Monty Python skit.
“Tabu” enjoyed a distinguished premiere at the Berlinale last year, winning the Alfred Bauer Prize (the Silver Bear for works that open new perspectives on cinema) and the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) Prize. For those burdened by both a brain and a heart, Gomes’ film is a treat, critically scrutinizing cinema and storytelling even while paying homage to them.
The film will have its Middle East debut Monday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, where it’s being projected as part of the Arte Week film cycle.
Prologue done, “Tabu” unfolds in two chapters – entitled “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise.”
Set in contemporary Lisbon, “Paradise Lost” is also a black-and-white place, albeit rendered in crisp 35mm film. There is no narration to make sense of the alienating (occasionally beautiful) tableaux, only the characters’ quirky monologues and awkwardly staged dialogues.
Lisbon is seen from the perspective of Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a devoutly religious, middle-aged woman who devotes her time to trying to make the world a nicer place.
She arranges to host a Polish exchange student who never arrives. The young woman’s efforts to duck Pilar’s charity provide the main comic motif of “Paradise Lost,” while underlining the absence that characterizes Pilar’s life.
Pilar goes to the cinema – alone or with a male friend who snoozes through moments that make her weep. She attends anti-war rallies. She prays. She spends lots of time being concerned about her neighbor, a geriatric drama queen named Aurora (Laura Soveral).
Addicted to sleeping pills, Aurora is fond of losing her money at the casino and has been known to pawn her clothing to make up for the shortfall. Neglected by her daughter, who has emigrated to Canada, she complains that Santa, her domestic from Cape Verde, uses black magic against her.
When Aurora falls ill, she asks Pilar to track down Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Esp?rito Santo). She does, only to find his son has had him committed to a mad house.
He’s retrieved in time for Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, over a post-funerary coffee, he informs Pilar and Santa that Aurora once had a farm in Africa, in the foothills of Mount Tabu.
This startling revelation marks the start of “Paradise.”
Set in Portuguese colonial Africa, the final hour of the film reverts to the prologue’s black-and-white 16mm stock and forsakes the (not so naturalistic) dialogue of “Paradise Lost.” Instead, the story of Aurora (Ana Moreira) and her passionate love affair with Ventura is narrated by her aged lover’s voice-over monologue.
The daughter of a wool merchant-cum-plantation owner with a weakness for gambling, Aurora married a Portuguese planter who set up a tea farm on her family’s property.
Living on the next farm was a defrocked Portuguese priest named Mario who, when not fathering illegitimate children, performs in a rock ’n’ roll band. His housemate, and percussionist, is an Italian adventurer named Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta).
Ventura and Aurora meet after she becomes pregnant with her husband’s child, yet they fall passionately in love and commence a secret affair. In the way of things, this mischief has tragic consequences, and she has asked Ventura to keep her shame secret as long as she is alive.
Africa has been immensely useful to Western narrative. As Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” illustrates, the continent was represented as a savage place where civilized Europeans behave badly. Apparently enough heat and humidity can sweat the morality off anyone.
Though Nicolas Roeg’s 1993 telefilm adaption of Conrad was widely dismissed as mediocre – particularly alongside Coppola’s storied adaptation of the novella for his 1979 Vietnam war epic “Apocalypse Now” – the “dark continent” premise transferred well to film.
Big-screen African romance has tended to conform to two categories of colonial movie.
There are tales of imperial troops slaughtering (or being slaughtered by) their enemies – sometimes other Europeans but usually local potentates, whether Zulus or the zealots of the crazed Mahdi of the Sudan.
Then there are stories of foreign men and women shagging. Usually they shag each other, à la “Out of Africa” (1985) and “The English Patient” (1996), but sometimes miscegenation happens with “natives,” as in Bertolucci’s regrettable 1990 adaptation of Paul Bowell’s “The Sheltering Sky.”
Commercial cinema has settled upon a few conventions for tales of colonial sex. Perhaps following Conrad’s lead, they tend to be narrated in flashback – as though the emotions Africa provokes can only be recollected from tranquil Europe.
“Out of Africa,” for instance, commences with author-protagonist Karen Blixen sitting at a window, gray behind sheets of rain. Alm?sy, narrator of “The English Patient,” lies near death in a bombed-out Italian villa, goaded into recollection by heavy doses of morphine.
Colonial recollections tend to be a cinematographer’s dream – period costumes swirling upon vibrantly colored landscapes, shot from land, sea and air – with voice-over narration giving way to naturalistic dialogue.
Gomes and his crew have disassembled the narrative and technical components of the “colonial picture,” held the bits up for scrutiny and reassembled them differently.
The resulting romp from Mozambique to Portugal and back again is an arresting piece of cinema.
Cinematographer Rui Poças has created two distinct visual sensibilities (one for 35mm, 21st-century Lisbon, another for 16mm, 20th-century Tabu).
Similarly, Gomes and co-writer Mariana Ricardo deploy parallel narrative techniques.
Africa is depicted using highly poetic, romantic voice-over narration. Lisbon is portrayed via quirky monologues ( Aurora explains she spent a day at the casino because of a dream about hairy-armed monkeys) and dialogues delivered as though the actors were children performing in a Christmas pageant.
Juxtaposing these elements in this manner, “Tabu” is a uniquely multifaceted mingling of emotional sincerity and parody.
Primarily an homage to the formal beauty of film (as opposed to digital imaging), it is also a dissection of narrative technique and romantic narrative in particular.
Most satisfying for those irritated by the genre’s obsession with privileged northerners copulating on other peoples’ land, “Tabu” lampoons nostalgic recollections of the colonialism.
“Tabu” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Monday evening at 8 p.m. For more information, see