I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Cinema has lost its youth.”
Miguel Gomes’ first two features—The Face You Deserve in 2004 and Our Beloved Month of August in 2008—piqued the interest of critics through their whimsical filmic tributes and meta-cinematic experiments, with some already flagging the Portuguese director as an emergent auteur worth keeping an eye on. This initial enthusiasm was validated by the premiere of his next film in the main competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Standing out as the most stylistically intrepid entry in an otherwise rather timid selection, Tabu was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation and went on to take the international festival circuit by storm, generating a torrent of acclaim that has consistently ranked it amongst the arthouse’s best films of the year.
Split in two chapters—“A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” (borrowed, along with the title, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu)—the film is initially set in present-day Lisbon, where Pilar, a lonely spinster leading an emotionally vicarious existence, spends her days advocating human rights and worrying about her increasingly senile neighbor Aurora. The death of the latter initiates the second part, which is set in an unnamed African colony and is narrated by Aurora’s former lover Gian Luca, recounting their youthful love affair whose tragic end coincided with the fall of the Portuguese empire.
While the narrative, particularly in the Lisbon chapter, does at times tend to meander due to a lack of cohesion, Tabu’s constant supply of stylistic flourishes is truly beguiling. Shot in gorgeous black and white—a velvety and highly contrasted 35mm in the first part and a grainier, almost tactile 16mm in the second—and projected in Academy ratio, the entire film pays loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking, adopting and playing with the trademarks of classic cinema to often very innovative effect. Most striking amongst these experiments is its revamp of the silent film in the second chapter, which retains the diegetic sounds but keeps all dialogue muted while Gian Luca’s melancholic voice describes the events depicted. Beyond being stylistically enjoyable, this device also provides a novel manner of representing memory through film, for since Gian Luca is narrating to Pilar and Aurora’s maid Santa, we are never sure whose version of the events we are witnessing.
More than a simple exercise in style, the film touches on deeper issues, for example drawing parallels between one’s inevitable loss of innocence and youth to the contemporary psyche of Portuguese society and its relation to the legacy of colonialism. Still, whether the film goes beyond scratching the surface of these issues is open to debate, which is why I wanted to get the director’s take while he was in town for Tabu’s screening at the New York Film Festival.
Giovanni Marchini Camia Tabu is a very nostalgic film, not least towards cinema. As it stands out from most contemporary cinema, I was wondering how you would position your own work in relation to that of your contemporaries.
Miguel Gomes For me it’s very difficult to make a generalization. I know that I’m a Portuguese director making films in 2012. Even if there is a connection—as in the case of Tabu—with a cinema that does not exist anymore, like silent films and like classical American cinema too—even if I know that these films existed, that there is a strong connection with this kind of cinema, I’m aware that I’m doing a film nowadays, a contemporary film. So despite the connection with this cinema of the past, I hope it invents its own way to get there. I’m not just trying to copy formal aesthetics, to reproduce the way that cinema was made in the past. I want to invent a way to get to the sensations that I had watching these old films.
Of course, in contemporary cinema there are things that I enjoy and things that I don’t enjoy, but there is something—because cinema is more than 100 years old—there is something I miss. I think that cinema has lost its youth. The characters in Tabu, in the first part of the film, I guess they are missing their youth; I think that’s what they are missing, really. And I also think that cinema misses the youth of cinema. For instance, in Murnau, in the ’20s and the beginning of the ’30s, I think that viewers were more available to believe in the things that cinema was showing them, and I miss this innocence that was lost. So when I make films, I try to regain this kind of innocence and give it back to the viewer.
In contemporary cinema there is another director whose work I really like: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s also very attached to this idea of trying to regain something that in the history of cinema was lost, which is innocence. Cinema is like people: when you get older, you no longer believe in Santa Claus. But cinema, which I think is very linked to childhood, is a way to regain: even if you know that the things that you’re seeing are not true, you can regain—in the space and time of a film—something of this innocence. This is why you get touched by the unbelievable things that cinema shows you.
GMC Is this why you generally avoid realism in your work?
MG Well, it’s just the fact that we are in a cinema theater: I think that real life is outside the cinema. For instance, I am really attached to musical comedies because I believe that cinema is better at inventing and not at trying to capture or reproduce reality. In most of the films that attempt to recreate reality, I think reality is better, because it’s more real. Cinema will always lose in this attempt, so I think it’s more interesting to have something that is not reality. There are different rules—the rules of a film should be invented for each film. But, of course, there should be a connection with the real world. If it’s only fantasy, it lacks interest for me, but I think that the world, the things that people do, the way they talk, everything that appears in a film should not be the attempt at reproducing reality, because cinema will always be less real than reality.
GMC Most of your films are very specifically about Portuguese history and culture. What role do you feel national identity plays in your filmmaking?
MG I cannot escape myself. I will answer like in the beginning of this film, in the prologue: the ghost of the explorer, whose wife says, “You cannot escape your heart.” You cannot escape yourself. I’m Portuguese, I can only do Portuguese stuff, I guess. (laughter)
GMC The Portuguese concept of saudade [a deep sense of longing or nostalgia for something that has been lost] is central to a lot of your country’s art. Could you comment on its role in your films?
MG It’s not a very rational thing. I never said to myself, or to other people, I’m going to make a film and it will be charged with saudade. But I think there’s a nostalgic quality in what I’m doing, which comes from the fact that I’m making personal films, so something of my own personality should be there because I’m doing it—I’m not being forced by anyone to do something like this or that, I’m just putting the things I like in my films. So, some of my personality, that is, some of my joy or my sense of humor, but also some of the more nostalgic parts of me will come through.
GMC Religion comes up in almost every work of yours I’ve seen. Is that also a reflection of your Portuguese identity?
MG Yeah, I guess, but in the case of Tabu, of course, you have different societies: a colonial society in the second part and you have a small society of people from a building [in the first part]. So you have these little communities, and religion and society, they have certain laws, you know? They create a way of living: religion proposes a way for people to live in a community and society does the same through laws and everything. So there are systems and I guess that I tend to put that in films because they’re systems that have rules in order for people to relate to one another in a certain way and I think that cinema, for me, is closer to the other side of every form of society and set of rules. I think that cinema is always closer—at the least the cinema that I like—is always closer to the wild side of something outside society. In this film I guess it’s [represented by] a crocodile.
GMC The representation of memory on film, which is a major aspect of Tabu, has a long tradition in cinema. Did you draw inspiration from any other filmmakers in this regard?
MG Memory, past stories, or songs—recollections of things, which includes cinema—are part of one’s reality. My reality is shaped by my memories, including memories of cinema. It’s not a very good memory that I have, so I mix films, which is quite convenient for making them. I think that there is the sensation of a whole bunch of films in my [work], but I hope it’s not a cinema of quotes, of always quoting a certain film. I tend to make films that have the sensation of other films, like previous lives—I’m not Apichatpong, I do not know shit about Buddhism and reincarnation, but I have the sensation that when I’m making films, there is the memory of other films, but in a very diffuse way, not a conscious way. Which films? I mean, lots of them, and I think that in a film you have the space to do very different things. In fact, there is a quote of a film—and it’s not that I’m very interested in that film— Out of Africa: the second part starts with her having a farm in Africa.
There is the possibility of doing lots of things and I don’t think you have to choose, “I’m going to make films influenced by this specific director.” It’s not like that for me. I’ve chosen a film of Murnau’s as a title, but it’s not that I intended to replicate, to copy the aesthetics of Murnau. For me he represents cinema, or the greatness of cinema, and this film is relating with that memory. It’s not to have the link with Murnau; it’s more a link with a cinema that does not exist anymore. I feel the lack of it, but I’m aware that I cannot do his Tabu or his Sunrise, because I’m not able to do it, firstly, and because it is not my time. These films were made by him in a specific moment and if you try to copy that nowadays, for me it doesn’t make any sense. But we have the memory of it, so I’ll try to get there, to the sensation of watching his films, and try to create a form to get there.
GMC The topic of colonialism is a very sensitive issue. How much importance do you grant to the political aspect of Tabu?
MG I’ve always imagined that in the first part of this film there is a vague sensation of guilt, without there being a materialization of what the origin of this sensation of guilt is. And then you have the second part, in which you see characters completely unaware, politically and socially, playing like they were in a Hollywood film—a Hollywood film that goes wrong. So, white people killing each other, doing silly, sexy stuff… and then it will end and Africa takes over. So this is my connection with colonialism, though, to be honest, I think that more than the loss of the Portuguese colonial empire, what the characters in the first part are missing is their youth.
When I imagined the film, I wanted to have this kind of old city, aged city, dark city, which is not the usual image of Lisbon, and to bring back the new world, even if it’s ironic, because this new world was an unfair world, but to bring it back in the second part of the film and to have this connection between this aged set of people in an aged city that feel guilty of something. The African part is like the taboo of the first part. Nothing is spoken: they don’t speak about colonialism, they don’t speak about Africa. Only Aurora, when she is losing her mind at the end, in the hospital, she starts talking about crocodiles—at that moment I guess people will think that she’s a crazy, demented old woman losing her mind. When Africa appears, it’s like a place, a colonial place, where things were possible for the characters, for Aurora.
The film works with oppositions. It’s like Murnau’s films, you know—dark/light, night/day, city/countryside—there’s all these oppositions that nowadays in cinema have disappeared, because contemporary cinema tends to have much more psychological approaches. They’ve given up on these kinds of simple oppositions that were possible because the viewer was more in a state of belief. And that’s precisely what was lost.
GMC Did you consider that presenting colonialism within a nostalgic framework could potentially be problematic?
MG I think that being in 2012, I don’t have to patronize the viewer by saying that colonialism is a bad thing. My starting point is that the viewer knows it already that this was an impossible system, an unfair system. There is the point of view of Aurora and the title “Paradise” appears when you see Aurora in her living room. Then the title stays and you see the servants wiping the floor, so maybe it was not a paradise to them. So I think that the film is very ironic and critical about silly white people doing stupid stuff and killing themselves until the moment that Africa takes over and they are expelled from their own paradise. But, at the same time, I’m not going to impose this view that colonialism was a bad thing and punish the characters. I think that’s precisely what cinema does not need. We talk a lot about the point of view of the filmmaker; I think that the most important point of view, which is not respected in lots of films that I’m seeing today, is the point of view of the viewer. A film should provide a space for the viewer to place himself in and not be told by the filmmaker, “You have to like this and hate this.” Sometimes I feel that the filmmaker is forcing the viewer into what he should think and I think that’s not good. For me, the job of a filmmaker is to provide different things. For example, an ironic film and Aurora’s melodrama, and to have both running at the same time, which then provides the space of liberty for the viewer to either go more into the ironic film or more into living the melodrama, living the love story.
GMC I completely agree that a film should not be didactic. However, considering that the whole film presents the past as ideal, both in narrative and cinematic terms, and that the second half is a tragic love story, it did strike me that the final shots, the unhappy ending, were of the Africans reclaiming their country. That juxtaposition surprised me.
MG Well, this world of Italian songs, where people were playing films—like actresses playing in a film—was over. They were expelled from their own paradise. That doesn’t mean the paradise of everybody. That means their own paradise. I think that when Aurora dies, in the first part, that’s a certain Portugal that disappears and I’m not making a judgment about that, I’m just delivering it to you and you’re free to choose whether you’re close to Aurora’s feeling or the servants’.
Tabu opens in New York on Dec 26 and will play at Film Forum until Jan 8.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic currently living in New York. For more of his writing visit his blog.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee