Behold the courage of Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes: hoping to do a film in the vein of “Meet Me In St. Louis,” he and a crew traveled to the small Arganil Municipality in the country to begin work on a movie featuring a small family band -- that is until the movie’s investor died before signing on the dotted line. Instead of calling it a day, Gomes pressed on and made “Our Beloved Month of August,” a doc/fiction hybrid that captured the essence of the lively environment while commenting on the fragility and banality of a film production. It’s a special, beautiful beast of a movie that unfortunately didn’t see much of a release. Luckily, Gomes has quickly followed up with the brilliant “Tabu” (which we gave an A-grade review to out of TIFF).
Beginning with a rather conventional opening chapter titled 'Lost Paradise,' the filmmaker tells the tale of middle-aged activist Pilar and her starlet neighbor Aurora, the latter who believes her African maid is practicing witchcraft on her. Set in a chilly, modern-day Lisbon, the droll days pass and Aurora suddenly becomes gravely ill, confiding in Pilar about a man she had an affair with -- a man who the dedicated friend seeks out, urging him to relay his story. The second he opens his mouth, Gomes begins a new journey, abandoning Pilar for 'Paradise,' a nostalgic romance in a freewheelin’, colonialist 1960s Mozambique. 'Paradise' is a strange segment, one completely coated in melodrama yet told in a rather distant, unaffecting way (for instance, there is no dialogue -- all of 'Paradise' is told via voice-over). Both segments transform the the other in mysterious ways, commenting on the way time and memory can distort reality.
All in all it’s another distinctive effort from Gomes, one you can catch in New York on December 26th. The director spoke to us during the New York Film Festival about the inspiration for the story, his distaste for the conventional three-act structure of screenplays, and his longing for silent cinema.
Starting With The Hangover
While the inspiration for the first chapter of “Tabu” is a bit ordinary (Gomes explained that the characters and situations were relayed to him from a relative), the following branch, 'Paradise,' has a much more colorful backstory. "When I was doing 'Our Beloved Month Of August,' I discovered that a song in the film was originally done by a Portuguese band in Mozambique in the 60s, so I met them. They talked to me about the old times in Africa, about the songs they played (whatever were the hits at the time), how they picked up girls, etc," explained the filmmaker, noting their nostalgia for a terrible colonialist regime. "They were attached to the regime and missing it, which is not my case, but what I think they were missing the most was their youth, and that intrigued me very much." As for how the divergent stories were eventually structured as one, the director described the idea in terms of binge drinking. "If the second part is the drinking, we start with the hangover. When you get to the section of partying, you continue to have the sensation of this hangover, so when you see the love affair, she’s already gone, she died in the first part. The guy that is going to tell the story, he’s an old man, and you can feel the weight of time contaminating this story, and all the fatigue that is in the first portion charges the second."
It's not part of the inflated "cinema is dead" declarations that have been going on as of late, but Gomes does have a unique perspective on the current state of movies. "Just as the guys playing in this band were missing their youth, cinema too is missing its youth. Now it is more than 100 years old, and during the process of aging a person becomes more aware and loses their innocence. You cannot believe in the same things you believed in as a child," the director said. "I tried to regain a little bit of this innocence that cinema lost (or we as viewers lost) with my film." Is it too nostalgic? Gomes fills the memories contained in 'Paradise' with artificial constructs such as a copious amount of voiceover to distance the audience, making it so that cinema-goers will have to actively believe in the fiction he is weaving. "The beauty of cinema is that it allows us to go back in time, to our childhood maybe, and believe in unbelievable things. All of this is a construction so it’s artificial, it’s not reality, it’s not the same world we are living in, it is cinema. But I guess that cinema can generate an inner truth, and there is a truth that exists in artificial structures that you can relate and react to in an emotional way," he resolved.