10/02/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Tabu and the Arrival of a Master Filmmaker

I suggest you drop everything and do whatever it takes to cop a ticket for Tabu, the exquisite new film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. The toast of international festivals, Tabu captured the FIPRESCI Prize in Venice, and bows Oct. 10 (repeating on the 14th), at the New York Film Festival. With its bipartite structure and theme of illicit love, the film salutes Murnau's Tabu of 1931 -- but otherwise this third feature from Gomes works a magic entirely its own, spinning a fever dream that will leave you giddy.

Shot in black and white, Tabu launches with a brief, cockeyed film-within-a-film featuring a puny explorer traipsing through the wild, who vanishes into the jaws of a crocodile to magically reunite with the ghost of his wife. "The heart," says the narrator, "is the most insolent muscle of the anatomy." Disoriented and intrigued, we're put on notice: expect the unexpected. Crocs will figure prominently in this hallucinatory tale; with their jade eyes bisected by a vertical black pupil, they are, for Gomes, totemic creatures evoking libido, the primeval, memory.

Set in a rainy, present-day Lisbon, Part I -- titled "Lost Paradise" - introduces characters virtually ignored by cinema: aging women. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a pious do-gooder who never got a life. She becomes fixated on Aurora (Laura Soveral) an elderly loony neighbor looked after by an impassive Cape Verdean caregiver whom she accuses of witchcraft. We're far from the make-nice world of Driving Miss Daisy. Part I is a bit of a tease -- like the long setup before the adventures in Life of Pi; like the dreary preamble with Sergeant Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. A prelude suffused with loss, deprivation, and undefined guilt, it's leavened by subtly placed hints of a magical world about to open up: Aurora's rapturous love story, set fifty years earlier, and aptly titled "Paradise."

Narrated by one Gian Luca Ventura, an elderly retiree, the story proves worth the buildup. Partly thanks to Carloto Cotta, the hot new Portuguese star, devastatingly attractive as Gian Luca in his youth. The loony old lady of Part I was once, it turns out, a glamorous big game hunter (Ana Moreira) -- portrayed as slightly goony, as in an old silent film. She lives on an African farm (a salute to Isak Dinesen), pregnant and happy with a wealthy husband surrounded by black servants. Enter seductive Gian Luca, a drummer in a band that specializes in Phil Spector hits. In an indelible scene, Aurora goes to Gian Luca's property in search of her pet alligator, who has wandered there like free-floating female libido. The two begin a reckless affair that culminates in an act of violence with repercussions for Portugal's colonialist society of the period.

Tabu explores passion, guilt, and the very nature of memory. In one of countless brilliant strokes, "Paradise" unspools as a mostly silent film, desire and love beamed through the actors' kohl-rimmed eyes. Only ambient sound is heard -- most memorably, the cheesy Phil Spector songs that Gomes makes sexy and heartbreaking -- never a word of the lovers' dialogue. This tactic serves the truth of memory; recollection seldom calls up language, but rather, faces, moments, scenes. Also an homage to silent film -- and adding to a sense of vanished time -- Tabu is shot using the old classic academy ratio, often using scratched degraded film stock. You could be watching scenes from someone's home movie or the dream of a dream.

At the same time Gomes works in an oblique critique of Portugal's colonial adventures in Africa, including scenes of decadent afternoon parties involving gunplay beside a menacing cistern. Unlike so many American films -- which unfold myopically in a vacuum -- Tabu slyly points up that the couple's crazy love unfolds amidst an army of oppressed servers, themselves a looming menace.

One hallmark of the films in this year's multi-hued New York Film Festival is a salute to the kind of old-time magic and wonderment experienced by children. Consider the technical whiz-bang of The Life of Pi, which more than anything is a pretext to explore the artistic possibilities of 3-D. A universe apart, Tabu conveys romantic longing among the foothills of Mount Tabu, where lovers play out their affair under the eyes of a watchful, mystical crocodile. Unlike the treacly The Artist, Tabu places demands on the viewer. Can American filmgoers embrace this rapturous film?