Film Reviews

Tabu Miguel Gomes

Rating - 6/10

Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a love story in reverse, a tale of modern isolation in Lisbon that yields an exotic, taboo romance in Africa at the foot of the fictitious Mount Tabu in the 1960s.  Its name is homage to an eighty-year-old film of the same name by pioneer F.W. Murnau, affixed with the subtitle Story of the South Seas (1931).  Gomes’ Tabu bears none, because the single word well-encapsulates locale, character mood, and perhaps alludes to the stigma associated with its unique fusion of modernity and antiquity.  Unfortunately, the heavily stylized nature of the film driven by uneven application of detached voiceover narration feels like amateurish experiment suited for a short film; the director seems desperate to translate a personal statement about his memory of cinema into a sort of cultural history while only hinting at or inadequately representing political turmoil.  Utilizing muted dialogue with voiceover substituting for intertitles in the latter half with the old academy ratio of 1:33.1, 35-and-16mm black-and-white, and surrealistic flourishes, Gomes forges a nostalgic tone that he, as the acting narrator, ironically seems to pull away from core emotion of its characters with his own words.  Granted, Tabu’s strange and scrambled pacing is of a dream, complemented by a diverse, hypnotic soundtrack (including classical and native African music as well as a recurring rendition of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”) that stylistically evoke Chinese director Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), another wistful tale of forbidden liaison.

The film’s prologue is a peek at the torrid affair and locale of Tabu’s second “Paradise” section in Mozambique.  An intrepid explorer wanders the plains when he is haunted by the ghost of a former lover; burdened with guilt, he drowns, and a “melancholic” crocodile, the film’s most resonant allegory, observes.  Tabu then cuts to “Paradise Lost” during the last days of the year 2010 in Portugal where Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a retired Christian busybody, seeks to help her reckless elder neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who she believes to be psychotic.  Yet Aurora’s African housekeeper Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) prevents any intervention on Pilar’s part due to her employer’s racist remarks and delusions.  Aurora introduces herself at the casino with a longwinded hallucinogenic speech about talking monkeys’ connection to a gambling trip.  As she concludes “people’s lives aren’t like dreams,” a statement that recalls her aforementioned anxieties in a regretful tone, it is clear something is missing in her life that has prompted elaborate fantasies, forced symbols, and spiritual malaise.  While the presence of Pilar and Santa seem to provoke Aurora, their absence in the latter half, “Paradise,” suggests a choice of stylization over characterization.  As this first part, “Paradise Lost,” ends and the sun sets on the last week of Aurora’s life, a mysterious man from her past, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), emerges.  His presence and dictation will entirely consume the film’s more experimental and impassioned second part over a twelve-month period some fifty years prior.

The scene then turns to Gian Luca’s flashback at Mount Tabu; a young Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a talented big game hunter, which remains a subtle yet underdeveloped commentary on her vigorous nature.  She marries a tea-planter who is never given a name, and he soon buys her a crocodile as a pet that she names “Dandy,” perhaps the very silent, somber reptile seen in the opening vignette.  It escapes and finds its way onto the property of the adventurer and doo-wop drummer Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta), her neighbor, whom she instantly falls for.  Of course, its never clear if this is his memory of events or fact, but since this whole section skewed through his word, it’s impossible to know.  The film’s former half features a brief segment about the discussion of parapsychology and belief altering reality, which could suggest this romance is simply embellished by fever dream.  The reversal of chronology in the film creates that impression of suspended reality in addition to the use of silence, made starker due to the narration.  Muted speech of “Paradise” is foreshadowing of the two lovers’ inevitable separation.  The stylistic choice prompts visual attention to the characters as well, but it is often robbed by the persistent diction, which is at first evocative but fades to filler over time- inessential to the cinematic purpose of “show, not tell.”  And of course, the more memorable, atmospheric “Paradise” spurs enough interest to consume the nearly two-hour running time, and may have benefited by broadened political implications and slipping in of quizzical pieces of “Paradise Lost” as dreams within dreams.  Instead, Gomes applies animal imagery and literary references (Robinson Crusoe, Out of Africa, and Paradise Lost) as metaphorical glue, but the impact of the first hour is lost.  All said, there is opportunity to capture Gian Luca and Aurora’s doomed tryst, and the director succeeds admirably with the affective but brief silent home movie scene by the waterfall; Tabu is most arresting when it relies upon visual cues.  Within Gomes’ tale is inherent scenic low fantasy that need not be buried like Aurora’s own past, or at least a memory of it.