Berlinale Dispatch: What's Black & White, Nearly Silent, and Dreamy All Over? (Hint: Not What You Think)

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s inventive, playful black-and-white Tabu — part drama, part romance, part malaria-induced fever dream — has turned out to be a favorite among critics at the Berlinale this week, alongside Christian Petzold’s Barbara, and it’s not hard to see why. Tabu was one of the few movies here to be heralded by a ripple of excitement — it seemed to be the one competition film everyone was curious to see. In the movie’s first section — despite an intriguing reference to a “sad and melancholic crocodile” — I feared the buzz would amount to nothing. And what if this crocodile never actually appeared? I wasn’t leaving without my crocodile, I decided, and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August) used to be a film critic, and you know how those people are: They love their movie references, and Gomes uses plenty. (The film’s title itself is a nod to F.W. Murnau’s movie of the same name.) But he manages to avoid coming off as either a show-off or know-it-all, particularly in the movie’s second section. The first chapter deals with a mysterious elderly Portuguese woman named Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose mind appears to be disintegrating and who is convinced her housekeeper (Isabel Cardoso) is working black magic on her. She begs her neighbor, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), for help. It’s only after Aurora dies, and Pilar seeks out the man who used to be her lover, that the movie truly springs to life: The opening section is clearly intended to be an extended prologue, a means of whetting our appetite for what’s to come.

In part two, we meet the young Aurora (played by Ana Moreira), a big-game hunter who, like good old Isak Dinesen before her, has a farm in Africa. Aurora is beautiful, headstrong, possibly emotionally unstable. She’s also a crackerjack markswoman who always gets her prey, sacking big game right and left. That includes menfolk: She’s married to a staid, successful businessman who doesn’t give her the attention she needs. It’s no surprise when she falls into the arms of Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a John Gilbert lookalike who plays in a local band — it specializes in hyper-romantic Phil Spector covers — and who also has some romantic complications of his own, in the form of a lover named Mario (Manuel Mesquita).

The second half of Tabu is mostly silent. There’s sound, in the form of birds or crickets or rustling leaves, but all the dialogue of the story remains unheard and implied: The actors move their lips, but no words come out, and the effect is surprisingly intimate, like being keyed in to a secret language between lovers. We know what’s happening, and what’s going on in the characters’ heads, thanks to a voiceover narration provided by the old-man version of Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), as he reflects on his obsessive and marvelously melodramatic relationship with the young Aurora.

Did I mention that by the time she and Ventura get together, she’s already pregnant with her husband’s child? Gomes piles one complication on top of another, but the effect is poetic rather than jumbled. I’ve been hearing people comparing Tabu to The Artist, couching it as a more art-housey version of that picture. There are similarities, but each film exists in its own distinct and imaginatively realized world. Gomes's is dreamier, more impressionistic — at times, in the first section, the conversations between the characters spin out in oblique, off-kilter loops, as if they’d been invented by a less-flamboyant, less-kooky Almodovar.

Gomes’s style here is winsome and affectionate; at times, it’s a little too arch and self-aware. But the picture’s satiny imagery, rendered in black, white and every glorious gradation in between, is so lovely that that hardly matters. The two lovers, Aurora and Ventura, lounge by a reflecting pool, glasses of lemonade on a tray between them, as that aforementioned crocodile — at this point, a mere babe — skims through the water like a silent witness to all that’s passing between them. Now we know why he’s sad and melancholic: He’s the croc who knew too much. But at least he’s been lucky enough to swim through this romantic dream of a movie.

Read more of Movieline's Berlinale 2012 coverage here.

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  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    "Portuguese director Miguel Gomes" shouldn't stop me, but it does. At some point you don't want to know that the universe out there is full of life -- too disjointing, and against your good purpose of just wanting to build up from what you already know. Glad you guys are enjoying the Berlinale, but some of us are pretending you're visaging nothing more interesting than bright sand. Let it roll, Hollywood, and on goes our story.

  • Paulo Soares says:

    "The Portuguese Nun" was directed by Eugène Green.

  • Milton says:

    there was an excellen portuguese documentary in 2011, that unfortnately didn't get many attention. It's called JOsé & Pilar, and it was ALMOST nominated to best Foreign Film. I urge everyone to see it.