Even more than in “Our Beloved Month of August,” Miguel Gomes begins “Tabu” in a seemingly ridiculous vein and unexpectedly shifts to something surprisingly enriching and poetic. The first part is a maddeningly artificial story of an elderly woman and her kind neighbor in Lisbon, and then, jumping back in time and place to Africa, the film becomes the story of an illicit love told via voiceover and ambient sound rather than dialogue. “Tabu” is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.
What’s most remarkable about Gomes’ achievement is how he’s uncovered the genuine, yearning emotion within a fairly standard colonials-in-Africa romance, stripping it of the usual meller trappings to find the kind of love poets write about. He’s achieved this without dialogue, allowing the beautifully written words of the voiceover narration to concretize the beauty of what’s onscreen, shot in Academy ratio on black-and-white 16mm stock (the Lisbon scenes were shot on 35mm).
That “Tabu” achieves this sort of transcendence despite head-scratching scenes of a perverse absurdity increases the wonder of it all. Gomes may be the only helmer capable of taking the Portuguese version of Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby,” sung by Les Surfs, first mining it for surreal camp value and then, on second insertion, making the lyrics feel like a poignant declaration of impossible love.
Reversing the chapter divisions of Murnau’s “Tabu” (a loosely thematic influence more than a stylistic one), things kick off with “A Lost Paradise.” It’s just after Christmas in Lisbon, and Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a lonely do-gooder concerned about the older woman next door, Aurora (Laura Soveral). The elegant, headstrong neighbor has become slightly batty, convinced that her maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), is using witchcraft against her. When Aurora is hospitalized, she gives Pilar a name and address and tells her to let the man there know what’s happened.
For this first section, Gomes has his thesps deliver lines as if they’re only slightly humanized automatons. Emotions are limited or uncontrollably spill over, and each person seems surrounded by a loneliness all their own. Conversations can feel nonsensical, as if near-meaningless words have been strung together that could just as easily be substituted with equally irrelevant lines.
In part two, “Paradise,” there’s no dialogue at all. Instead, narration is provided by the man whose address Aurora gave to Pilar, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). Through a sort of recollected memoir and letters, Gian Luca tells of Aurora’s earlier life: As a young woman (Ana Moreira), she was one of the privileged colonial farmers in Africa with a nice life and a new husband (Ivo Mueller). When pregnant, she met Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta), a dashing Italian with a rakish past. They fell in love, equally hard, and despite attempts to separate, they’re unable to deny their passion.
In the retelling, this half of the pic sounds little more than the usual “White Mischief” tale, with rich Europeans sipping tea and bedding each other while the natives either serve drinks or work the fields. Instead, Gomes strips the story down to its barest emotions, using Gian Luca’s exquisite words to locate two hearts brimming with ardor. Despite the lack of dialogue, this isn’t a silent film, and the voiceover isn’t a read-aloud version of intertitles. Ambient sound and music provide enough aural stimulus, but Gomes is creating something all his own rather than aiming for something like “The Artist’s” sensibility.
Result is a film that starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms. The vivid emotions don’t wipe away or explain the bizarre touches, but stand on their own for those willing to go the distance. Acting styles are as divided as the tones, with the thesps in “Paradise” playing their roles with a straightforward ease, in contrast with the earlier stiffness. Espirito Santo’s reading voice suits the script’s richness, and Cotta has the suave, captivating elegance of a young Errol Flynn.
The contrast between the sharp darkness of 35mm and the textured glow of 16mm is mesmerizing, with d.p. Rui Pocas (“To Die Like a Man,” “Our Beloved Month of August”) handsomely capturing the broad plains and distant mountains of Mozambique with the quality of 1950s photography. In this way, too, Gomes isn’t out to imitate “Tabu” or other silents (though Aurora’s name is also a tribute to Murnau, via “Sunrise”), but rather to find a different way of telling an age-old story and reflexively engage with the meaning of paradises lost and found.