The Second Half, by Scott Nye
There’s really no way to adequately account for Miguel Gomes’ Tabu without discussing a turn it takes in its second half, but for those who haven’t seen it and are content merely to hear that it is a transportive experience that repurposes the history of the medium towards a singular vision of the state of society, memory, colonialism, class, and forbidden love, well, there you are. It was a 2012 film for me, and among the best of that year, but I should be very surprised if it were not among the best for this as well. For those who don’t mind knowing how things go down the river, well, let’s go on, shall we?
It could be said that the first half of the film, titled “Paradise Lost,” and its preceding prologue, account for little more than the introduction of the film to come, but the time Gomes spends in what I took to be the present suggests a deeper purpose. We’re introduced first to Pilar, a middle-aged Catholic, while she’s, fittingly enough, at a movie theater. Pilar is mostly consumed with her own affairs – some family trouble and the day-to-day routine – but she spends the occasional hour with her elderly neighbor, Aurora, who is as close to death as she seems to be the afterlife, so tuned is she into a world well beyond the confines of her own. Though perhaps that world is only in her mind. Sensing this closeness to death, especially after a hospitalization, Aurora asks Pilar to find Gian-Luca Ventura, of whom her friends have never heard. It is upon the discovery of Gian-Luca that the film really becomes something otherworldly, something fittingly titled “Paradise.”
The actualities of Gian-Luca’s story are fairly pedestrian – he was an explorer in Portuguese Africa, circa 1960; Aurora was the wife of a man with business dealings in the area. They eventually cross paths, and fall into a love affair as intense in its passion as it is in its, yes, taboo nature. The title tends to take on multiple meanings, starting as a reference to the F.W. Murnau film of the same name, then the mountain near which Aurora and Gian-Luca lived, then as a hint towards the tawdry and unbecoming.
Now, though this is a classical, archetypal story, it is Gomes’ execution that makes it absolutely transcendent. Shot on 16mm black-and-white film, in the full Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1), with only intermittent uses of diegetic sound, this is almost as much a silent film as The Artist was. But it’s the “intermittent” that perfects it – noises, music, and other environmental intrusions are heard (sometimes), but voices never are, substituting instead the voice of the aged Gian-Luca for not only himself, but all the other players. How often, after all, do we recall the exact way someone told us something? What was their tone of voice? Not always. But what was that look in their eyes? How did they carry themselves? How did they feel when you touched? These are memories, and memories are cinema.
The impossibility of communicating the feeling of this second half is inescapable – as has been said before, if it could be explained, what would be the point of filming it? It is irrefutably transcendent, but it is also deeply melancholic, hopelessly romantic, just a touch nostalgic, fervently erotic, and ultimately mournful. It should come as no surprise that since Aurora had no way of reaching Gian-Luca at the end of her life that their affair did not meet the happiest end, but there’s no way to divorce oneself of the tragedy of actually seeing it unfold. Once again, if the word “heartbreaking” could cover the intensity of emotion Gomes wrings from this film, he wouldn’t have needed to make it.
Yet he did need to, and the joy of seeing a film, that rare beast, that its maker absolutely needed, from the pit of his stomach, to unleash is so rare, so exceptional, and so beautiful to behold that it takes your breath away. I can’t say I’ve never seen anything like it, as much of its power comes from our familiarity with this kind of forbidden-love-in-the-tropics set-up, and much of its soul comes from knowing that such passion cannot last, if for no other reason than it would hardly count as passion if it did. However, this is not a mere exercise in genre, or even formal deconstruction, or even indulgence. Gomes is revisiting these tropes and this form with absolute purpose, blending his form into a mixture of home movies and pure, omniscient expression to create something that truly is a memory – scattered, unfocused, and exhibiting total clarity at moments of intense emotional involvement. What more could one ask of their cinema?