This is a tough film to discuss in 500 words. It’s so multifaceted, textural and moody. I’ll try my hardest, but from the off, I must suggest that you just experience Tabu for yourself. You may have a different experience or opinion to me, you may feel the exact same. Either way, you won’t regret it.
Borrowing the name, two-part structure and love affair-plus-colonisation premise from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 classic, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a film of unmistakeable vintage. But it’s magnificently subversive too. With one foot in the past, one in the future and a head orbiting in it’s own artistic universe, it’s a little thing of beguiling beauty.
Tabu opens with a tragicomic prologue centring around an exasperated explorer trekking through the harsh jungles of Southern Africa. Through Gomes’ voiceover narration, we learn that he is distraught over the death of his wife some years ago, and this lost adventure will be his last. No crocodile tears on display, but there is an ominous little croc that lingers through the sequence – and the rest of the film – with cold, mournful eyes. In a word, stunning.
From here, we begin with the chapter “A LOST PARADISE”. In something that resembles a present day Lisbon, we meet our leading lady Aurora (Laura Soveral). A compulsive gambler whose memories are slipping away from her, yet images of hairy monkeys and African farmers still manage to pervade her dreams. Whilst she tries to recall her youth with altruistic next-door-neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and Santa (Isabel Cardoso), a black woman whom Aurora often woefully calls a housemaid/tyrannous witch, the fatalism of the prologue suggests that Aurora will only be able to relive her glory days in the afterlife.
Cue part 2, “PARADISE”. Told through vivid flashbacks and narration from former lover Gian-Luca Venture, we’re finally made aware of Aurora’s past once lost. Married to a wealthy farmer in the idyllic rural setting of Mozambique, Aurora embarks on a fiery affair with the devilishly handsome nomad Ventura, after her eager pet crocodile crossed the forbidden line into his neighbouring garden. It’s a time of lost innocence and furtive whispers, so Gomes decides to strip away all forms of diegetic sound, leaving just the bodies and faces of incredible actors Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta to express this simple, enduring love.
Like Leos Carax’s comeback success Holy Motors, Tabu is a film entrenched in film history and scholarly technique (unsurprising considering that they both started out as film critics). But Gomes goes one step further. Filmed in intoxicating black & white by cinematographer Rui Poças, Tabu is beautifully photographed; from the alarmingly stark opening image of a sweaty explorer looking lost in an African jungle, to the final image of a baby crocodile turning away from the camera and crawling out of frame. In an inspired touch, the two halves are filmed in different film stocks – the first in familiar 35mm, and the second in exquisitely old-fashioned 16mm. They mingle together to create a film with a perennial quality, existing as a piece of cinematic artifice but with a modern, reflexive twist.
Similarly, the sound construction is unnervingly good. Mixing the deadened silence with ambient sounds, poetic narration and a Portuguese rendition of “Be My Little Baby” (made famous by The Ronettes) the composite sonisphere speaks for the unspoken, tabooed love to exceptionally powerful effect.
Because the film’s aesthetic is so dazzling, it’s easy to lose track of the whimsical storyline. Based on diary entries and private letters, it has a very nostalgic feel, similar to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Just like that film, Tabu isn’t a perfect movie, there’s pacing issues and Gomes seems to be wrestling with three separate endings. But there’s enough moments of unforgettable virtuosity, grace and intellect to make Tabu unmissable.