Tabu is one of those truly unique movies you can get tongue-tied just trying to describe: a tragic pop pastiche? A lyrical Old Hollywood melodrama projected on a bedsheet? A celluloid curio à la Barnum's Fiji mermaid? At such times, it's better to stick with a simple "wonderful."

Although the film is as contemporary as any work of emotional urgency must be, Gomes has linked Tabu with the cinematic past by shooting it in black-and-white and at the Academy ratio of pre-wide-screen, pre-television movies. He has also appropriated the title of a 1931 South Seas-set picture, the fruit of an odd-couple collaboration between Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North), rugged outdoorsman and father of ethnographic documentary, and F.W. Murnau (Sunrise), gay aesthete and the supreme artist to emerge from the sublimely artificial tradition of silent-era German expressionism. Like its namesake, Gomes's Tabu is a divided into sections titled "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost," though he inverts the order. It's also divided between the presiding spirits of Murnau and Flaherty — seeming opposites but both dedicated in their way to recapturing mankind's savage innocence, something very much at Tabu's heart.

Gomes has fashioned his own ethnographic study of Africa — not the real one, but the remembered one, the one of European imagination. Tabu begins in the bush, with a prologue depicting a pith-helmeted Portuguese explorer plunging through jungle and across savannah; a narrator explains that the subject is heading not toward knowledge or glory, but away from heartbreak, something like Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Gomes' explorer dies, is resurrected as a crocodile of melancholic temper, and Gomes cuts to a 50-something woman, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who's watching along with us, huddled alone in a movie theater — neither the last nor least narrative leap that Tabu will make.

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Written and directed by Miguel Gomes. Starring Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta, Henrique Espírito Santo, and Isabel Muñoz Cardoso. Not rated.

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Tabu proceeds as a deadpan comedy, following Pilar out into wintery modern-day Lisbon, revealing her quietly unhappy life in funny, empathetic, but uneasy scenes, like something from Aki Kaurismäki. Pilar inserts herself into the ongoing psychodrama of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly neighbor addicted to gambling, whose worship for the daughter she never sees is only equaled by her suspicion of her black housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso). Pilar's concern with Aurora's affairs and indifference to her own mirrors her professional devotion to overseas human rights causes, a calling she sets aside only for day trips with the male friend who pays her court in vain: "Sometimes I regret that I haven't stepped on an African mine just to get your attention."

When Aurora is suddenly rushed into hospital, she requests that Pilar deliver a mysterious fellow named Gianluca to her bedside. The old man who arrives — too late — tells his history with the deceased, an affair conducted once upon a time in Africa, and this precipitates Tabu's next metamorphosis. Gianluca's narration is the entire spoken portion of Tabu's dialogue-free "Paradise" section, an extended flashback (shot on 16mm film) occupying more than half of the movie, which never returns to Pilar, Lisbon, or 35mm.

In an unnamed colonial state in the early '60s, Aurora is reintroduced as a young and beautiful woman (Ana Moreira), wife of a rich tea farmer who lives in the shadow of the mythical "Mount Tabu," repository of local legend. One day, Aurora's escaped pet crocodile leads her to a dashing young neighbor, Gianluca (played in flashback by Carloto Cotta), and so begins their affair.

Without their taking much heed, Aurora and Gianluca's affair wends through scenes in which one can read the signs of impending African independence and European banishment from their stolen Eden. Gomes' treatment is brisk, deceptively frivolous — and this light touch allows him to penetrate deeply into colonial malaise, in a succession of piercing images. There are tense, boozy parties around the stagnant pool at a plantation kept by neurotic father-and-son bachelors, rainy afternoons playing ping-pong outdoors with the houseboy, and the clubby formation of white militias to tamp down native rebellion — an excuse for still more drinking and a perfect opportunity for Aurora and Gianluca to slip away for rendezvous.

The style of "Paradise" is somewhere between that of home-movie nostalgia and Tinseltown-jungle kitsch — that is, home movies writ on the emulsion of the mind, double-exposed with the collective fantasy of "Africa" — from Tarzan the Ape Man, Republic serials, those uncharted islands epidemic in '30s movies — which overlays the real thing until the film's Africa feels like a Pre-Code Hollywood back lot.

Gomes is commenting on two sorts of colonialism: the European colonization of Africa, and Hollywood's colonization of the imagination — Tarantino's film/history lesson in Django Unchained is comparatively puerile. The theme of misplaced love is, meanwhile, the tie that binds all of Tabu's sections: The pith-helmeted explorer's retreat from the scene of his sadness; Aurora's doting on her absentee daughter while slandering Santa, the helpmate who's her constant companion; Pilar's "telescopic philanthropy," as Dickens has it in Bleak House, a preoccupation with the far-off less fortunate that allows her to overlook neediness nearer home; and Aurora's loveless resignation to her husband.

While making a supremely wistful film about the deceit of wistfulness, Gomes' Tabu indulges in no crocodile tears. Its upbeat tempo is set by the Madagascar group Les Surfs' '60s cover of "Be My Baby," heard in both halves of the movie, while the Phil Spector–produced Ramones rendition of Spector's own "Baby, I Love You" issues from the band in which Gianluca sits in on drums. Their single, the narration tells us, would become "a cult object for its rarity and simplicity" — a fair prediction of the future in store for Gomes's work of sophisticated primitivism, which finds aching truth in the phrase "The past is another country."

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