Paying homage to F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s 1931 classic about love and clashing civilizations in exotic paradise, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a striking pastiche of the kind regularly performed by Guy Maddin or Quentin Tarantino—and at least as obscurely sourced. Gomes lifts the bifurcated structure of the ’31 film and shows a similar interest in the exoticism and sensuality of a faraway earthly paradise. But his Tabu isn’t entirely about giving pleasure. It’s an eccentric, formally challenging experiment, with two halves that try different things—and to varying degrees of success—but together form something droll, mysterious, enchanting, and altogether singular. Like other great pastiche artists, Gomes has created a time machine to a cinematic era that never quite existed, so it feels simultaneously borrowed and new.
After a gorgeous prologue, Gomes settles into the first of two chapters of roughly equal length, both in different contrasts of black and white, separated by 50 years. “Paradise Lost” follows Teresa Madruga, a lonely middle-aged woman from Lisbon who gets an unusual request from her feisty octogenarian neighbor (Laura Soveral). Hospitalized and paranoid about the maid (Isabel Cardoso) who accompanies her, Soveral sends Madruga on a mission to seek out a man from Soveral’s distant past. Once Madruga finds him, the film enters chapter two, “Paradise,” set in colonial Africa half a century earlier, when Soveral’s character (now played by Ana Moreira) was the beautiful wife of a successful but dull farmer (Ivo Mueller). While pregnant with her husband’s baby, Moreira falls deeply in love with the dashing Carloto Cotta, and their forbidden love goes as far as fate—partly in the form of unrest among their African hosts—will take them.
The two halves of Tabu have equal time but not equal weight: The first seems like something that would be a brief framing story in other films, and Gomes doesn’t gain much from the extra attention. (The second half does make it more resonant upon reflection, but that doesn’t spare the grind of sitting through it the first time.) But “Paradise” is astonishingly beautiful, a romantic adventure that replaces all the dialogue with narration from the older version of Cotta, which is dense in sadness and regret, but leavened by a dry sense of humor. Not having the characters speak gives Gomes the chance to open up the film visually, allowing him to drink in the beauty of the landscape and his marquee-pretty cast while showing an affair that develops through chemistry so vibrant that it requires no words. Tabu is a peculiar, lopsided piece of structural gamesmanship, but there’s nothing out there entirely like it.