Review: ‘Tabu’ Is a Quiet Masterpiece About Love, Colonialism, and Crocodiles

By  · Published on December 21st, 2012

A full day after watching Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, the film’s many moving parts have not quite yet fallen back into place during reflection. This is by no means a criticism of the film, just a statement about the ways in which this lyrical ode to cinema, colonialism, dreams, love, crocodiles, and mental illness deftly explores and incorporates a variety of styles, themes, and ideas together into a beautifully cohesive and coherent, if unlikely, whole. I’m not saying Tabu is greater than the sum of its parts, for in many ways Tabu is precisely about the ruptures that separate its various stylistic and narrative components, but rather that Tabu is a strange and hypnotizing moving image poem with no comprehensive or unifying point of comparison. Tabu is a film made through a truly unique and inspired vision and voice.

Tabu opens with a wry fairy tale depicting journey of an explorer traversing colonial Africa in an apparent attempt to forget a lost love. The explorer commits suicide, falling into a marsh and feeding himself to its crocodiles. The brief episode is revealed to be a film-within-a-film watched in solitude in contemporary Lisbon by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) a retired part-time activist who spends most of her days helping a maid named Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso) care for her elderly, mentally ill neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) who has a gambling addiction and seeks real-life answers based on questions raised while dreaming. As Aurora is clearly living her last days, Pilar and Santa seek out a mysterious connection in Aurora’s past, a man named Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) who tells them (and us) about Aurora’s history as a young woman in colonial Africa. Tabu then spends the second half of its running time depicting Aurora and Ventura’s youth (their younger selves played by the equally magnetic Ana Moriera and Carlotto Cotta), a tumultuous chapter in the characters’ lives involving infidelity, music, hunting, and even murder.

Tabu is divided into two parts after its self-reflexive prologue. The first, the present-set search for Aurora’s past, is titled “Paradise Lost,” and this story is told in a restrained, dry-comic, social-realist-yet-stagey style of Aki Kaurismaki. The Africa-set past portion of the film, titled “Paradise,” employs a dialogue-free style in which the only sound that is heard is present-day Ventura’s narration alongside the sounds of the setting of the past events recounted.

The result is a beautiful, nostalgic, yet never naïvely romantic approach to filmmaking that somehow successfully combines the style of Robert Flaherty (the film’s title comes from the 1931 collaboration between Flaherty and F.W. Murnau, whose American silent work is also clearly referenced here) with Powell/Pressburger-esque melodrama. The black-and-white, Academy ratio cinematography by Rui Pocas helps frame the movie as a love letter to cinema, yet isn’t beholden to its references. With its fragmented-yet-cohesive storyline and encyclopedic combination of disparate film styles, Tabu is the perfect example of taking the old to construct a work of art that feels altogether new.

While “Paradise Lost” is a deliberately-paced, hypnotic vision of present-day Lisbon (elder Aurora’s extended recounting of a dream is beautifully meditative), Tabu’s second chapter is clearly the place where the film elevates itself from an interesting character study to a transcendent, exceptional love story. Last year’s The Artist was little more than a charming but gimmicky pastiche of past film styles, but Tabu is a fascinating, one-of-a-kind investigation of life, culture, and cinema, then and now.

The Upside: A stunning and ambitious, yet modest, achievement, Tabu is a gorgeous, inventive, and masterfully crafted mystery/love story that somehow balances an array of diverse topics, themes, and styles.

The Downside: The methodical pacing might turn off some viewers but, frankly, that’s not the film’s problem.

On the Side: Tabu is Portugal’s official entry to be considered for the Academy’s Best Foreign Language film category.

Tabu opens in limited release December 26th. You can view the trailer below.