It’s won prizes for artistic innovation and has been praised by the more discerning end of the film criticism world. Yet Miguel Gomes’ beguiling and eerie tribute to colonialism, love and Africa is never easy going. A strange black-and-white tale in two parts, traditional notions of plot and character are pushed to the background as a hazy and exotic sensibility of nostalgia and loss float over proceedings. Nearly two hours in length, it’s definitely a journey for the patient and the adventurous, but there are gems to be found along the way – whether in the naïve humour of colonial existence or the danger-tinged episodes of illicit romance.
The film opens with a colonial explorer treading carefully through the jungles of Africa, a voice-over explaining his story and the dangers that lie close by – mainly crocodiles and ghosts. Yet he is merely a character being watched by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) a woman living in contemporary Lisbon. But we haven’t come to the heart of things yet, for it is Pilar’s bolshy neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral) that the story orientates around. Suspicious that her maid Santa (Isabel Cardosa) is making her ill, Aurora sets out to make contact with a man named Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), the love of her life from another era. And thus we are transported back to Portuguese Mozambique for the second part of the film, and the romance thaht takes place on a colonial farm nestled at the base of Mount Tabu.
Drawing inspiration from F. W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name (also told in two parts, and about young lovers in the tropics), Miguel Gomes baths this love story in a dreamy nostalgia. But whereas Murnau’s two parts are “Paradise” and then “Paradise Lost”, Gomes reverses the order, taking us slowly back to the seductive charms of colonial Africa accompanied by drumbeats, 1970s pop music and the scent of adventure. The young lovers (played by Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta) are everything that nostalgia makes of memories: passionate, daring and secretive.It’s a much more seductive place to be than the grim reality that comes with a paradise lost.