In 2009, the best film in Competition at the Berlinale was Maren Ade's Everyone Else (FWIW, it came away with 1.5 Silver Bears, the 1 for Best Actress Birgit Minichmayr, the .5 for tying with Adrián Biniez's Gigante for the Jury Grand Prix; the Golden Bear that year went to Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow). Three years on (!), the trio that made Everyone Else worth talking up to this day (see, for example, Kevin B Lee's new video essay on a key scene at Fandor; see, too, Mike D'Angelo on the same scene a year ago at the AV Club) is back in Competition, albeit in three different films. Lars Eidinger has drawn the shortest straw, taking on the lead in Hans-Christian Schmid's rather dismal Home for the Weekend. Minichmayr's fared better opposite Jürgen Vogel in Matthias Glasner's new film, though I seriously doubt many of us will be talking about Mercy three years from now, if we remember it at all. Seems there's no stopping or even tripping up Maren Ade, though. She first returned last year as a producer on Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness and is now back again as co-producer on one of the two outstanding Competition entries, Miguel Gomes's Tabu, the other being, as you'll have likely guessed, Christian Petzold's Barbara.
But while Barbara is a masterful piece of work and a personal favorite, it isn't the event that Tabu is, the sort of outlier in the Competition lineup that, like Béla Tarr's remarkable Turin Horse last year, brings to mind the old Sesame Street ditty, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others." Other than that both The Turin Horse and Tabu are shot in black and white and were clear critical favorites even before they premiered, though, here's where the comparisons end. At a moment's distance, the trajectory of Tarr's swan song is as traceable as a dirge, from all that sound and fury and half-light into the silent and terrifying dark. Tabu is not only structurally more complex but emotionally as well, with a range encompassing gentle melancholy, bittersweet melancholy and heart-breaking melancholy — but also lust and rage and mad, mad love.
Then there are the shifts in tone from the prologue to the first and then second movements; Gomes has taken the names for these movements from Murnau's Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost," and switched the order. From here on in, I'll proceed carefully. "Indeed," writes Sight & Sound's Nick James, "one problem for this film is that its pleasures are so much to do with the ingenious ways it draws you into its fatal attraction that to write about it at length is to ruin some of that enjoyment."
Prologue. Open with an anecdote. I'm afraid one of the three clips I posted the other day gives away the punchline, but in short, a 19th century Portuguese explorer is haunted by the ghost of the wife he abandoned and a crocodile subsumes a "sad and melancholic" spirit. In these few minutes, the eye adjusts to the 4:3 aspect ratio, the ear to the faux solemnity at the core of Gomes's humor.
Paradise Lost. 35mm, deeper blacks, lush whites, a greater depth of field. In present-day, post-colonial Lisbon, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) aims to devote her retirement to doing good in the world, beginning by taking in a young lodger, evidently arranged by her church. But the girl, Maya, would rather hang with friends her own age. Pilar is seeing an artist whose painting her friends can't stand; she hangs it when he visits, takes it down when he's gone again. He warrants a mention here in these abbreviated notes because, one night out, Pilar and the artist take in a movie. The film, which we don't see, has left Pilar strangely moved and put the artist to sleep, but the soundtrack gives us our first hearing of Phil Spector and The Ronettes' "Be My Baby."
Pilar's greatest concern is her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) who gambles away whatever money she comes into and accuses Santa (Isabel Cardoso), her maid from Cape Verde, of casting voodoo spells on her. Aurora's final wish is to see Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). He arrives too late and, tears in his eyes, he begins his story.
Paradise. "Aurora had a farm in Africa at the foothill of Mount Tabu…" 50 years prior to the present day, 16mm, lovely grain. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), her husband (Ivo Müller) and all the other characters in this remembered tale speak but we hear nothing other than all the other "diagetic" sounds of each scene, which have been added in post-production. As Gomes notes himself, what's played out in "Paradise" is Pilar and Santa's visualization of Ventura's narration. It's this movement that's kicked up the superfluous references to The Artist that you'll find in so many reviews of Tabu. At any rate, there are parties on the farm and there is a band whose signature tune is "Be My Baby," with the young Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta) providing that solid gold drum beat. Aurora and Gian Luca fall hopelessly in love and the irresistible pull of melodrama kicks in.
With its countless references to other films and pop culture icons, its cast whose collective resume includes work for Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Pedro Costa, João César Monteiro, João Pedro Rodrigues, João Botelho, João Canijo and Fernando Lopes, among others, its director, with his background as a film critic and two award-winning features (The Face You Deserve  and Our Beloved Month of August ) behind him, its echoes between the movements and a beguiling magic all its own, Tabu is the sort of film that sends critics stumbling out of a press screening dodging the inevitable question, "What d'ya think?" I'm guilty of posing it myself and was actually glad to hear in response more often than not that Tuesday some variation of "I need time." Andrew Grant tweeted a typical reaction: "Can't yet adequately express my love for this film, but will say that it's porn for the @reverse_shot set." Myself, I was thinking more along the lines of catnip for the @CinemaScopeMag contingent, and checking just now, sure enough: "30 minutes post TABU, still choked up." As Dennis Lim writes in the New York Times, Tabu "is a living, breathing demonstration of cinephilia in action." And this afternoon, Neil Young's tweeted, in reaction to news from FIPRESCI, "Breaking: Miguel Gomes' TABU has won the critics' prize at #Berlinale. In other news, the Pope is Catholic and the sun has risen in the east."
For those wondering at this point if there's more to Tabu than, shall we say, inner-circular self-gratification, in short, yes. For a longer answer, I want to turn to the final two questions Maren Ade and Ulrich Köhler ask of Gomes in the interview that appears in the press kit. And because I can, I will:
What role do the colonial times in present-day Lisbon play?
My dear friends, that is a question of sociological nature that would demand a long answer I don't feel apt to give. War between Portugal and the former colonies (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde) began in the first half of the 60s and ended only in 1974, with those countries' proclamation of independence and the fall of the fascist regime in "The Carnation Revolution" of the 25th of April. That is to say it's still very close in the history of the country. Thousands of returnees came back to Portugal at that time. My mother, for example, was born in Angola and came back to Lisbon in the 60s to study. As I've said, more than articulating the colonial issue between the two sections of the film, I wanted to have a more abstract component, going from a vague sense of loss and guilt to a time of excesses, brutality and folly (sentimental, social and political folly). But I wanted the melancholy of the first part to contaminate the euphoria of the second. The images and characters' actions in "paradise" (something it never was, for those who missed the irony) already come from a "paradise lost."
Where exactly in Mozambique is Mount Tabu?
There is no Mount Tabu in Mozambique, don't believe everything you see in the movies. The film was shot in the north of the Zambezia province, near the border with Malawi. It is a mountain region dominated by the cultivation of tea. In the film, it's not even supposed to be Mozambique, it's an unnamed former Portuguese colony, an indeterminate historical territory reinvented for a film called Tabu.
More on Tabu from Ronald Bergan (House Next Door), Brian Clark (Twitch), Jean-Michel Frodon (Slate.fr), Fionnuala Halligan (Screen), David Jenkins (Little White Lies), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Kevin B Lee (Press Play), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa), Tim Robey (Telegraph), Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline).
Ratings. Screen International's Jury Grid: Scott Foundas: 4 out of 4 stars; Derek Malcolm (Evening Standard): 3; Nick James (Sight & Sound): 3; Tim Robey (Telegraph): 4; Jose Carlos Avellar (Escrevercinema.com): 2; Bo Green Jensen (Weekendavisen Berlinske): 2; Jan Schulz-Ojala (Tagesspiegel): 2; Screen itself: 3.
Der Tagesspiegel: Verena Lueken (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): "good"; Daniel Sander (Spiegel): "weak"; Susan Vahabzadeh (Süddeutsche Zeitung): "good"; Cristina Nord (die taz): "excellent."
Update, 2/20: For Guy Lodge, writing at In Contention, Tabu is "a sweet, sustained swoon of a film that runs the gamut from deadpan social satire to guileless golden-age romance, it's at once like nothing and everything you've seen before."