by Angelo Muredda Tabu opens, fittingly enough, at the movies, with an old melodrama about an explorer who's just been turned into a brooding crocodile. That's the first of many transformations in a protean film that shifts gracefully from ironic postcolonial critique, to essay on the cinema as a means of appropriation and reincarnation, to thwarted love story. While those layers may seem impossible to navigate, take heart: Director Miguel Gomes's great coup is to let this complex material flow instinctually from its emotional core. Fluidity is key to Gomes's aesthetic, which pairs the breathless momentum of a page-turner with the non-sequitur progression of a dream. Case in point, a moment when Pilar (Teresa Madruga), the first half's protagonist, sees a movie with the stuffy man who loves her. Pilar is visibly moved by what's on screen, but we never see it, hearing only a Portuguese cover of "Be My Baby" on the soundtrack--a thread left dangling only to be gingerly picked up in the second half. "You know what dreams are like," as one character tells us: "We can't command them."
A devout and caring middle-aged spinster, Pilar is our access point both to Gomes's ambivalent nod to the swoons and casual racism of exotic romances and to Aurora (Laura Soveral), her eccentric elderly neighbour whose mad, possibly-remembered visions of a crocodile in colonial Africa are key to the second part. Gomes's elegant bipartite structure--split, like F.W. Murnau's 1931 film of the same name, into sections entitled "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost," but played in reverse--follows Aurora's dissipated final days in Lisbon, gambling away her life savings and accusing her black maid Santa of witchcraft before turning to her youth as a landholder and huntress at the foothills of the titular mountain, doomed by a loveless marriage and an illicit affair. The second half, narrated by her outlawed lover Gian Luca (played by Carloto Cotta, but voiced as an old man by Gomes himself), who Pilar has summoned to Aurora's deathbed, puts The Artist and Hugo's Film Appreciation 101 to shame. Gomes adapts and discards silent-movie tropes at will. There is no diegetic sound, for instance, except for the odd trace of footsteps or clapping hands. Gomes also keeps the full-frame ratio, but he swaps out intertitles for Gian Luca's melancholy memory-essay and updates the timeframe to the 1960s, as if he won't be made to choose between his love for the silent era and the Golden Age. (Adding to the out-of-time vibe is the fact that Portuguese colonialism spanned both eras.) But you needn't be a pedant to appreciate Tabu's ecstatic cinephilia, only someone who responds to the desperate melancholy of "Be My Baby," whether by The Ronettes or a Portuguese boy band. Programme: Wavelengths