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“The Future Seemed a Vague and Stupid Concept”: Memory and Empire in Tabu

2012 festival favorite Tabu, by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (The Face You Deserve, Our Beloved Month Of August), will have its area premiere at the Walker this weekend. Taking its title from F. W. Murnau’s 1931 film, Tabu contemplates the sublime connections between memory and cinema, a subject that Gomes has spoken about at length […]

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2012 festival favorite Tabu, by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (The Face You Deserve, Our Beloved Month Of August), will have its area premiere at the Walker this weekend. Taking its title from F. W. Murnau’s 1931 film, Tabu contemplates the sublime connections between memory and cinema, a subject that Gomes has spoken about at length in multiple interviews. Describing the power of film to invoke and reconstruct the past, he also remarks upon the tendency of his own “feeble memory” to jumble his personal cinematic influences, leading him to “mix films” in his mind. The combination of Gomes’s acute fascination with memory and his slippery grasp on it anchors Tabu’s exploration of cinema’s capacities to simultaneously recall and distort, lie and expose, seduce and disavow. “It’s this kind of contrasting of opposites that attracts me, as a way of offering more than what might normally be expected,” Gomes told Time Out Paris. Gomes’s proclivity for the dichotomous filters of memory scaffolds the two-part structure of the film as well its several interwoven themes. The present foreshadows the past, indicated most succinctly by the titles of the film’s two halves: first, “Paradise Lost,” shot in 35mm, followed by an extended flashback, “Paradise,” shot in 16mm.

The first part approaches the second from an indirect angle, following a middle-aged activist and devout Catholic woman named Pilar in her friendship with her elderly diva of a neighbor, Miss Aurora. Increasingly senile but ever the beguiling performer, Aurora, dressed in full length fur, mutters about her youth in colonial Africa. Pilar listens raptly, a stand-in for the film spectator. On her deathbed, Aurora mentions a man named Ventura and Pilar sets off to find the old lady’s former lover, initiating a journey into the past, into a lost “paradise,” and even deeper into what Gomes names “the wild side of something outside society”—the essence of cinema, embodied in Tabu by a melancholic crocodile.

In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins writes, “Tabu is about life remembered as silent cinema.” But it’s also about life remembered as the visceral presence as well as absence of sound. In the second half, sound plays an integral role in excavating a love story long ago buried in memory. The voice-over narration of the now decrepit Ventura serves as the only dialogue, even while the narrative unfolds in a visually conventional manner. Mouths move but we hear no words, only the tale as remembered by a mind creaking under the weight of a lifetime. Other diegetic sounds abound: the pouring of tea, the taps of a ping pong game, the soft swish of scythes in the field. Through his manipulation of sound, Gomes denies the easy enjoyment of a story told directly, opting instead to showcase the simultaneously pleasurable and problematic properties of cinema: perpetually unreliable narrators, persuasive depictions of undepictable realities, the systematic effacement of celluloid’s constitutive labor.

Tabu’s selective soundscape resonates on more than a purely aesthetic level; the tactic contributes to an innovative form of cinematic critique. At age 8 ½, Tilda Swinton’s son famously asked his mother, “what were people’s dreams like before the cinema was invented?” He recognized that through artificial construction, cinema conjures sensations of places we never visit, people we never meet, heights we never scale—dream fodder harvested from experiences we never have. Over time, we acquire entire filmic catalogs of particular concepts. Africa, for example.  In other words, or in Gomes’s to be precise, “we can thank classical American cinema” for the imagined communities we call continents, for our “fake [Western] memory of Africa.” Traveling himself to Africa for the first time to shoot Tabu, Gomes purposefully leaves the colony in Tabu unnamed. It is a collage composed of a multitude of these “classical” images drawn from the collective cinematic memory. By redeploying the Africa of Eurocentric films while pointedly eliminating dialogue and other crucial diegetic sounds, (e.g. the splash of a body thrown into water) Tabu raises questions about the ability of memory, and cinema—and the unwitting collaboration of the two—to adequately recall or ethically represent the past.

Wrestling with Portugal’s colonial history, Gomes’s mobilizes the feelings of saudade for an imperial yesteryear still lingering in his culture’s subconscious in order to ask: is it ever possible for the participants in wide scale oppression to extend authentic recognition, in the present or in retrospect, to the oppressed? In “Paradise,” the sounds of the Africans’ labor are obscured, drowned out by the rambling anecdote of an old lovelorn imperialist. Indeed, the idea for Tabu originated with a conversation Gomes had with a retired Portuguese rock band that spent their youth playing gigs, chasing girls, and ignoring the crumbling vestige of their nation’s colonial empire. The unabashed nostalgia of the aged band mates struck Gomes: “they were attached to the regime and missing it, which is not my case.” (A.O. Scott, however, mistakes the film’s aesthetic beauty for an endorsement rather than a post-colonial critique of the regime.)

Ever since Tabu’s premiere at the 2012 Berlinale, where he won the FIPRESCI Jury Prize and Alfred Baeur Prize for Artistic Innovation, Gomes has reaped consistent praise for the way he uncannily captures the processual sensation of a dream unfolding or a memory sutured painstakingly (and painfully) back together. Without claiming to realistically represent them, Tabu stirs sensations of an array of bygone eras: those of silent and classical cinemas, twentieth-century empires on the edge of collapse, rock ‘n roll bands dressed unironically in white suits, and romances kindled and destroyed by the comingling of such conditions.