Miguel Gomes's Tabu, and nostalgia for colonialism

Categories: Film and TV
Courtesy Adopt Films 
, a new film by Miguel Gomes screening this weekend and next at the Walker Art Center, is both an homage to classic cinema and a meditation on dreams and desire. Shot in both 16mm and 35 mm in Lisbon, Portugal, and Mozambique, the film is filled with nostalgia, and sprinkled with gorgeous cinematography and wonderful acting. Unfortunately, it also has a bit of a racism problem.

aurora .jpg
Courtesy Adopt Films 
Tabu is essentially divided into two parts. In the first part, which takes place in Lisbon, we meet Pilar (Teresa Madruga) a lonely, melancholy woman who yearns for human connection and excitement. She busies herself with various progressive causes, and is heartbroken when her plans to host a Polish backpacker fall through. Her main companion is an older painter friend whose love for Pilar is unrequited, and showers her with abstract paintings that she only hangs in her home when she knows he will visit. Pilar's next door neighbors are Aurora (Laura Soveral) and her Cape Verdean maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso). Aurora, a batty elderly woman who has just lost all of her money at the casino, sends missives to Pilar about how she is tortured by Santa, who is paid for by Aurora's daughter, who is markedly absent in Aurora's life.

Adopt Films .jpg
Courtesy Adopt Films 
Santa (played stoically and with a sea of covered emotion by Cardosa) keeps Pilar at an arm's length, refusing to share with the neighbor the daughter's telephone number, but when Aurora's life is clearly nearing an end, pleads with the neighbor to seek out Aurora's long-lost love, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). 

Seen mostly from Pilar's perspective, the first half of the film showcases the layered talents of three fantastic actresses, with the understated longing and squelched desire of both Pilar and Santa contrasted with Aurora's frenzied histrionics. The camera lingers on their facial expressions, which evoke so much with just a glance. 
adopt films.jpg
Courtesy Adopt Films 

In the second half of the film, which is shot in 16 mm and carries no sound except Ventura's narration, we go back in time to when Ventura as a young man (played by the dreamy Carloto Cotta) met the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) in the mountains of Mozambique. This second half of the film goes much quicker, with its doomed lovers plot, and the cinematography of the landscape is absolutely breathtaking.

The events in the second half of the film take place in the years prior to the Mozambican War of Independence, where guerrilla rebels fought for their freedom against Portuguese colonization. Director Miguel Gomes depicts an odd nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times, and portrays the black population, who live in servitude, as a docile, placated group who seem to have no problem living out their lives for the whims of the white masters. 
Courtesy Adopt Films 

This problematic element of the film is mirrored in the characterization of Santa, Aurora's maid, who seems to carry a great love for her charge despite the fact that Aurora's delusions paint Santa as a kidnapping wretch. Santa's character reads Robinson Crusoe in her spare time, and the audience never gets to see anything about her background. It's too bad, because Cardosa gives an incredible performance with the limited material that she has, and it would have been a nice counterpart to the sentimental depiction of pre-revolutionary Mozambique. 

The film's two-part structure is satisfying in that it rewards the audience with back story after leaving so many questions in the first half. Indeed, there are so many wonderful things about this film -- the acting, the brutal love story, the beautiful camera work -- that you can almost forgive the Gone with the Wind-like nostalgia for oppression. Almost. While we can hold up the many cinematic virtues of Gone with the Wind despite its idyllic portrayal of slavery, that movie was made in 1939, not 2012. The fact that the film draws inspiration from that era of filmmaking doesn't quite make a convincing excuse. 


January 11-12 and 18-19
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays
Walker Art Center

Location Info


Walker Art Center

1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN

Category: Film

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