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Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

September 18, 2012

Review written for Subtitled Online

One of the more acclaimed films to premiere at the 2012 Berlinale, and an audience favourite at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Tabu is primarily concerned with how fiction, specifically films, inspires our memories. This is Portugese director Miguel Gomes’ follow-up to his praised 2008 feature Our Beloved Month Of August, a film that transitioned between a factual documentary aesthetic and fictional drama. Tabu has a similarly unique execution, switching halfway from contemporary dry comedy to an exotic, dream-like extended flashback. Heavily influenced by silent films and early adventure cinema, Tabu provides an interesting contrast to The Artist in its resurrection of older filmmaking grammar, used here for arguably more creative means than just parody humour.

Following a short colonial-era prologue, the film’s first of two distinct narrative halves begins. Entitled ‘Paradise Lost’, it is set in present-day Lisbon, where a middle-aged spinster named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) concerns herself with an eccentric elderly neighbour, one with a destructive addition to local casino slot machines. Claiming to have blood on her hands from misdeeds in her past, neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral) suggests signs of growing dementia and frequently accuses her maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso) of performing acts of witchcraft against her. A devout catholic, the compassionate Pilar finds she is unable to respond to a male friend’s declarations of affection, while still maintaining a sense of loneliness and a longing for some excitement. When the deteriorating Aurora is eventually hospitalised, she assigns Pilar the task of tracking down a former long lost companion of hers. The man, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), tells Pilar and Santa of his past with Aurora: a tale of love half a century earlier in an unnamed Portuguese African colony.

The second half of the film, entitled ‘Paradise’, visualises Ventura’s tale. ‘Visualisation’ is the key word, as this section of the film is free of dialogue, the only soundtrack being Ventura’s bursts of narration, musical interludes courtesy of a band, and ambient noises from background elements. Set in 1960, the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) is married to a successful tea planter, and is pregnant with his first child. The young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) is their new neighbour: his arrival in Africa follows a long period of aimless wandering, heartbreaking and debt obtaining. One day Aurora’s pet crocodile wanders onto his property. She follows it, encounters Ventura, and a passionate, illicit love affair begins from there…

Tabu’s dramatic switching of cinematic techniques may likely sound jarring, but its opening prologue, shot in the same style as the second half, sets the tone for what will come later. The film starts in this somewhat absurd fashion, with an overly romantic mood in the visuals and minimal dialogue (“You cannot escape your heart”), supernatural elements and demise by crocodile. This prologue is set in the 19th century, and the setting, costumes, tone and the way it is shot bring to mind the various exotic adventure films to come out of Hollywood’s early decades. Elsewhere, the film’s title and setting elements in the second half are even a deliberate reference to F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s 1931 adventure film Tabu: A Saga of the South Seas. The curious part of the second half’s stylistic similarity with the prologue is that although it is set in 1960, the privileged lifestyles of the colonials make it seem like it could be decades earlier. The 1930s cinematic feel is very befitting as a result; the younger Aurora and Ventura even look like plausible matinee idols of the past.

The prologue serves to successfully introduce this romantic, exotic mood so that what follows can be a voyage to get back to that same mood in a more sustained, non-absurd way; to build it up again with a gateway character for the viewer to follow. The lonely Pilar, in the first half, finds a connection with cinema: one lovely scene sees her crying, emotionally impacted by a film, while her ill-suited would-be suitor has fallen asleep next to her. In an interesting approach that adds to the droll, deadpan comedy of the Lisbon section, Teresa Madruga even looks at the other actors with such intentness as though she is still watching a film. Her life is normal and lacks adventure, and she seeks some kind of suggestion that fiction’s adventures can manifest in the life she knows. In this way, the second half’s story of Aurora’s past is almost like a gift to both her and the viewer.

It’s also possible that Pilar herself may even be influencing the second half’s depiction. While various stylistic elements suggest a vintage Hollywood aesthetic, more modern cinematic language is present through use of nudity, flourishes of pop music, bold tracking shots and instances of slow motion. A cover of The Ronettes and Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby”, meanwhile, acts as a music cue in both halves, the first instance being during Pilar’s cinema trip. Perhaps the second half is Pilar’s imagined film version of Ventura’s story, full of exciting adventure, love, rock bands and crime. It may also be a comment on how fiction, specifically cinema, informs memory. Many of the various references in Tabu’s style are themselves emblems of cinema’s past, after all. Even the fact that Gomes shot Tabu on film rather than the increasingly pervasive method of digital is relevant to this idea, yet alone that he did so in monochrome, in Academy aspect ratio, and in both 35mm and 16mm.

Regardless of its pastiche elements, Tabu is an intoxicating, frequently amusing and beautifully executed work. Some may be put off by its lack of resolution to some strands, but it is here a refreshing instance, rather than a frustrating one, of letting the viewer make the final connections themselves to complete the story. Even without knowledge of its cinematic and cultural call-backs, the film is a gorgeous dream-like delight, with a potent exploration of time, memory and our relationship with escapism.

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