“She had a farm in Africa. She had a farm in Africa.” With that refrain echoing the opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, the second half of Miguel Gomes’s festival favorite Tabu begins, shattering the realism of the first half in favor of the kind of romanticism best found in the movies. We’re not unprepared for this seismic stylistic shift, for the first section of the film is preceded by a brief prologue, shot and narrated like a late 20s-early 30s jungle adventure film, about a man who, in the wake of his wife’s death, sentences himself to “wander desolately over inhospitable plains” of Africa, only to be hounded everywhere he goes by his wife’s ghost. In the end, after he dies throwing himself into croc-infested waters, the villagers will speak of a vision of the lady wandering the jungle accompanied by “a sad and melancholy crocodile.”
We experience this as though it were a movie being watched by the main character of the first half of the film, Pilar, a bit of a sad sack middle-aged woman. Pilar has a old lady neighbor, Aurora, who appears quite senile, if not downright insane: she goes on gambling jags, accuses her maid of practicing witchcraft on her and so on. Pilar is one of those nice ordinary people that everyone seems to rely on, at least a little, but that no one ever notices. Even the Polish nun she’s agreed to host blows her off to hang out with cooler, more interesting people. The only time she seems to feel a real emotional connection with anything is at the movies: we watch her as she watches, and cries, at an unnamed, unseen film that features a Portuguese cover of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. When Aurora falls ill, Pilar is sent to fetch the mysterious Gian Luca Ventura, who appears to be some kind of elderly Indiana Jones-type (leather jacket, anachronistic fedora). It is Ventura who tells the tale of the second half of the film, about his life with Aurora in Africa.
The plot for this section follows the general contours of many a romance film, Out of Africa among them. Aurora is the beautiful, intelligent, spirited heroine trapped in a marriage to a man she likes but doesn’t really love who falls for the dashing young adventurer whose only fear is commitment. The young Ventura is played by Carlotta Cotta, he kind of looks like what you’d imagine Johnny Depp playing Matthew McConaughey would look like, and when he’s not romancing Aurora, he’s playing in a rock band with her husband and a couple other friends: they prove to be quite popular in their little Portuguese community in Mozambique, they have a hit playing another Ronettes song “Baby, I Love You” (this time lip-synched to the version by The Ramones). This half of the film, shot in 16mm unlike the first half’s standard 35 (both sections are black-and-white), is entirely narrated: there is no on-screen dialogue, though there are sound effects (if I remember correctly). It is entirely an imagining of the story told by Ventura, presumably through the mind of cinephile Phil Spector fan Pilar. Where the first half of the film is told in the kind of deadpan realist minimalism that’s become the standard form of contemporary art cinema, the second half is wildly emotional and florid (Ventura at one point finds himself with “a feral despair beneath a cloak of amiability”), where even the maps the explorers make of their previously uncharted colony are “very beautiful but, it turn(s) out, hardly scientific.”
It’s tempting to read the movie as a political metaphor, set as the second half of the film is in the last stages of the Portuguese Empire, with the natives eyeing hungrily the decadent parties and love affairs of their colonizers, colonizers destined to end up lonely old women in tiny apartments thousands of miles away. But more so the film is about memories and stories, and the ways in which our love of cinema alters them, making them less real and yet connecting us to them more powerfully. Perhaps that’s where the decadence lies: when fiction becomes more meaningful to us than reality.