The first thing to know about Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' mysterious, beautiful Tabu is that you might not "get" it the first time you see it, or maybe even the second time. Not that the film's actual story is particularly hard to understand. Its first part, set in the present, concerns the efforts of a kindly Lisbon woman named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) to help her elderly, eccentric neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is convinced that African maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso) is practicing black magic on her.
The second half, set in Africa in a deliciously indeterminate colonial past, involves the strange, melodramatic love affair between Aurora (Ana Moreira), here a young heiress, and a dashing adventurer (Carloto Cotta). There's also a surreal prologue involving a great white hunter who is haunted by the specter of a lost love, which settles us into the right dreamlike frame of mind for seeing the film.
Gomes shoots the first part in fairly matter-of-fact style — lots of close-ups and lengthy dialogue scenes — but switches in the second half to a kind of silent-movie pastiche steeped in irony and grand emotions. It'd be easy to see Tabu as a meditation on loss and old age, as the frail seniors' humdrum contemporary reality yields in flashback to their passionate and remarkable youths.
But director Gomes may be hunting more elusive quarry. Tabu is steeped in stories — characters stop to talk about their pasts, tell tall tales to relate dreams, etc. Indeed, that's what makes it such an elliptical beast of a film: At any given moment, the narrative seems on the verge of slipping into the rabbit-hole of memory, or a dream narrative. Stories are how these characters — like us — both make sense of the world and allow it to defy sense and retain its mystery.
As Tabu unfolds, shot in a black-and-white that in its first half seems downright neorealistic and in its second half almost antiquarian, we never quite know where all its connections and tangents are leading us. But in the end, who cares if we ever do? Better to just drift among this bewitching film's competing slipstreams. It's a lovely way to lose your mind.
Opening Friday wide: Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Killer, the blotto comedy 21 & Over andThe Last Exorcist 2. At Green Hills: the Ed Harris-David Duchovny submarine thriller Phantom. At Belcourt: the food-desert documentary A Place at the Table, featuring music by The Civil Wars, with a panel discussion following the 7:30 p.m. screening Friday. At Belcourt midnight Friday and Saturday: The Big Lebowski, with games and drink specials. The Dude abides.