F.W. Murnau's indelible Tabu (1931), a last gasp of the silent era about young lovers cast out of their Polynesian paradise, gets a postcolonial gloss in Portuguese filmmaker (and former film critic) Miguel Gomes's similarly two-part meta-movie. After a mock-ethnographic prologue, Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August) flips Murnau's sequence, and his perspective. First, in 35mm, comes "Paradise Lost," in which quiet, religious Pilar (Teresa Madruga) goes to the movies in present-day Lisbon, offers to house Polish backpackers, and otherwise tries to figure out how best to spend her retirement. She takes an interest in elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who suspects her Cape Verdean maid (Isabel Cardoso) of stealing. On her deathbed, Aurora asks Pilar to find an old flame, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who then recalls their affair on a farm in Africa.
Thus commences the ironically titled "Paradiso," set on a plantation in an unnamed Portuguese colony in the '60s, where young wife Aurora (Ana Moreira) hunted game while her Italian lover (Carloto Cotta) played drums in a Phil Spector cover band. Ventura's memories are in 16mm, with home movies in the era's silent film, Super 8 (filmed with a camera leaking light). Gomes, who narrates as Ventura, borrows a tactic of the transitional era in which movie soundtracks had synchronized sound effects and music but not dialogue. Mouths move, forming words that cannot be recalled over the intervening years. All we are left with are those Brill Building lyrics, as banal and borrowed as a Polish tourist's phrasebook English. Cinema, Ventura recalls, bored Aurora to death, and if in the first half Gomes dares the audience to be bored, the second half is a cinephile's payoff. "People's lives are not like dreams," says the elderly Aurora. But movies are, when they are as haunting as this one.