"Tabu" is a beguiling allegory about how Portugal deals, or does not deal with, its colonial past, as the past seems insistent on returning to haunt the present. For example, Aurora is not merely going senile but becoming her younger self again.(That might explain a crocodile making an appearance in both the prologue and the second half. Or maybe the director just likes crocodiles.) By contrast, Santa and Pilar seem intent on breaking such a cycle; Santa by reading 'Robinson Crusoe' while Pilar takes up various forms of activism. As time moves day by day in the present and by the month in the past, both have a lovely colorless dreamlike intensity while the past has sound effects, musical numbers but no dialogue. At least in Portugal, they take down their Christmas decorations in a timely fashion.
How to say ... two stories? Or a monumentally long prelude before the story? Regardless of perspective, I think there's good reason for us to dwell so much time in the quotidian of three ladies, to know Aurora. To know one of the links that connect the two halves of the narrative (or anti-narrative), this senile and insecure woman, prone to fits of delirium and eccentricity who has, as a vestige of past times, a black maid, Santa, that somehow manages to put up with Aurora. Maybe Santa puts up with Aurora because she feels for her a much higher degree of compassion than we do. But old age eventually reclaims Aurora's life, and so appears Gian-Luca Ventura, the other link, to chronicle the Paradise. The memoir of a sad love story, visceral, reckless and adventurous love between Aurora and Ventura held decades ago in the bleak landscape of a former Portuguese colony in Africa. A love story that, by its sheer turmoil, had the unfortunate consequence of triggering the Portuguese Colonial War. Paradise lends another depth and color to Aurora's character and, in the end, it's impossible not to have the slightest compassion for her.
The slowness and monotony of the first half might discourage the least patient, but it pays off to endure to the end with "Tabu". Miguel Gomes, Portuguese filmmaker, forged a movie gifted with cinematic beauty as ravishing as the love story itself, the clean, modern and direct nature of Paradise Lost contrasts with the dreamlike and nostalgic enchantment of Paradise, as if those were two completely different worlds (or films). The reward is immense both for the strokes of cinematic genius revealed by Miguel Gomes and for the feeling of having contemplated, over a lifetime, the memory or dream of someone. Amidst all this, the significance of Pilar's role, the other main character of Paradise Lost, becomes incognito to me. The prominent attention given to her persona seems inconsequent, all in all, she is little more than a spectator, just like us ... maybe the director actually wanted to allude us through Pilar, an intriguing reading which boosts even more my impetus to re-watch this film. This is a singular work in the context of Contemporary Cinema which pays tribute to the old B&W Classic Cinema. Wonderful art house film, highly recommended!
The first half is just batty but the second half actually drops the dialogue whilst you can see characters mouthing their words. Some scenes have background noises and some don't and whilst the film seems s et in the early 60s, suddenly a band lip synchs the Ramones 1980s version of Be My Baby.
It lacks the poetry of a Malick and lacks the tension of almost everything else, but the film (or at least the second half) is curiously compelling.
Being in black and white much of it looks like old anthropological footage.
And then it ends.
"Tabu" is full of auteur tricks and cinephile homages. It borrows its name from an obscure FW Murnau silent, it's filmed in black and white and utilizes two different film speeds, and the entire second half has no dialogue, only voiceover. But underneath all those tricks is a surprising conventional film. Well, more precisely, two films.
After a brief interlude involving an intrepid explorer, a ghost and a crocodile, Part 1 begins, which is titled "Lost Paradise." It's about three women living in present-day Lisbon -- Pilar, her neighbor Aurora, and Aurora's African caretaker, Santa. Aurora is wildly dramatic, and probably senile. She sneaks away from Santa to gamble away any money she comes across. She corners Pilar one day and shares her fears that Santa is a servant of the devil who has imprisoned her and cast a curse upon them all. Of course the truth is much less dramatic, but Pilar still feels obligated to try and do something for her aging neighbor. And when her health takes a turn for the worse and Aurora asks her only friend to track down a man she once knew, of course Pilar obliges her.
The man's name is Ventura, and he's not very hard to track down. The second half of the film, titled "Paradise," is his recounting of his relationship with Aurora; the entire thing is narrated by him but acted out like something from "Unsolved Mysteries" -- the actors on the screen speak but we never hear their words, only ambient sounds around them. It is an interesting way to portray a memory, to keep us aware that this isn't happening, it's being remembered. But really - an hour of flashback? The contrivance grows old fast, and we never transition out of it into more immediate and direct storytelling.
The memory takes place in Mozambique, back when it was a Portuguese colony. Aurora is the beautiful bored wife of a rich merchant, and Ventura is a rake and a roustabout. He looks an awful lot like pirate Johnny Depp in "Chocolat." Of course this is the kind of guy you should never trust around your women, but Aurora's husband is out of town quite a bit, and there's the matter of a constantly escaping pet crocodile. Pretty soon they are in bed (Aurora and Ventura, not the crocodile) and not long after that they are in love. But she is pregnant, and the baby is her husband's, not her lover's. This is a love story that can only end in tragedy. (Which, of course, we already knew, because this is all being tragically remembered, mind you.)
So essentially, we have two movies -- the two parts are too stylistically different to be considered anything else. The first half is a quiet, borderline boring Euroflick about aging and loneliness. It has a vaguely Almodovarian feel, though there are no transvestites or ghosts, only a cadre of middle-aged women. The second half is more classical, and also more formulaic, reminiscent of sweeping, exotic romances from the golden age of Hollywood without ever approaching that kind of grandeur. (Indeed, it uses pretense to steer clear of that kind of grandeur and emotional intensity. Of it was as overheated and melodramatic as the movies it's emulating, it would probably be unbearably campy.) Both halves are decently made short films -- probably better than average, but I think for "Tabu" to really work, the two halves need to connect on a deeper level than the plot. And that never materializes. I want the two halves to comment on each other, to enrich each other in some way, but it's just not there. So really, all it amounts to is, "hey, you know that crazy old lady next door? She's got a quite a story, set in Africa, about infidelity and murder and crocodiles. Imagine that!"
"In all my films there is an urge for fiction," Mr. Gomes said in an interview with Slate. "There is a first part that begs for another film to appear, and it does because of our common desire." I'd say he's accomplished about half of that goal, twice over. While watching "Tabu," I kept waiting for another film to appear, a more interesting, more subtle and complex, more deeply layered film. But it never does. So I guess I'll move on to the next thing, and keep looking.
-- I enjoyed the relationship between Pilar and the painter more than most anything else in the first half. Though they only have two or three scenes, volumes are communicated between them. She's lonely, and he wants to be her companion, someone to go to the movies with. She's not impressed with his art, and he's awfully sentimental. I think he's about to propose to her in the scene after the movies. Would she say yes? Maybe, but not because she loves him. Because he's better than being lonely, and there's no one else in the picture, nor is there likely to be.
--Gomes' style and cinematic tricks -- especially the opening prologue reminded me of Guy Maddin's films. But Maddin accomplishes a great deal more in movies like "My Winnipeg" and "Brand Upon the Brain" than Gomes manages here. There's a method to Maddin's madness; Gomes is just all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
-- A lot of critics have raved about the way "Tabu" pays homage to silent films, in the same way they raved about "The Artist." last year. But as I said last year, it's fine to pay homage to a bygone era, but you still have to make a good movie in the meantime. "Tabu" fails in the same way "The Artist" did; both of them just make me want to watch any one of the truly great silent films.
--Throughout the film there are somewhat aggressive hints at race relations - between Santa and Aurora, and between the white colonizers and their African subjects. The film ends with the beginning of the Mozambique revolution. My hunch is that the connection between the two halves was supposed to be sociopolitical, centered on Santa's relationship with Aurora compared/contrasted to the Africans in colonial Mozambique. But this element always sits on the edges; it never comes front and center the way it needs to. I feel like maybe something got lost in the editing process. That's just a hunch.