Breaking classic genre conventions in the most apt and eloquent way, while consistently subverting them with bold narrative choices and a beautifully dreamlike style, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu combines the story of an impossible love affair with a quirkily surreal, poetic view of colonial history. The film is formally divided into two narrative parts - one set in contemporary Lisbon (‘A Lost Paradise’), the other in Mozambique in the 1960s (‘Paradise’) - but revolves around one central heroine: the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a compulsive gambler with a mysterious past.
Before we are introduced to Aurora, however, Tabu starts with an enigmatic prologue, which in itself offers a superb small film within a film that follows an intrepid explorer, still haunted by the death of his beloved wife some time ago, roaming the harsh planes of Southern Africa. As the camera follows his every step, the gentle voice of a narrator informs us about the true meaning of the explorer’s expedition, and the destiny he is hoping to fulfil. In the end, the image of a sad, melancholic crocodile with a woman from the past - who form, as we are told, an inseparable pair united by a mysterious pact - creates the perfect transition into the ingenious, poetic, grotesque and often brilliantly witty world that makes Tabu such a unique and compelling cinematic experience.
As the film enters its first chapter, ‘A Lost Paradise’, Aurora is about to pass from this life. Apart from her next-door-neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who spends most of her day doing good deeds, and Santa (Isabel Cardoso), a black woman whom Aurora treats like a housemaid when she is not accusing her of witchcraft or tyranny, there is no one else left to visit her or come to the rescue whenever the elderly lady - incited by the hairy monkeys and other creatures that frequently populate her dreams - feels the urge to gamble her belongings in the local casino. Aurora is a woman tormented by mysterious memories of her past, and it is only after she is rushed into hospital that she quietly agrees to disclose the secret of the tragic love story in her life. She asks Pilar to find a man called Mr Ventura, who, at Aurora’s funeral, sheds light on the events that took place 50 years earlier on the ostrich farm that she used to own in Africa, at the foot of a certain Mount Tabu.
To say more would be giving away the magic that suffuses the wonderfully scripted and staged second half of the film, ‘Paradise’. With a lighter, but perhaps more darkly cynical touch, Gomes here creates not only a visually stunning, tragic tale of love and loss, but also an enduringly fascinating tribute to silent cinema.
Taken as the sum of its equally dazzling and perplexing parts, Tabu is a bold, impressive film that attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent art-house filmmaking. Elegantly weaving together colonial history, past cinema and personal memories, it unashamedly touches the heart – as we learn in the film, the most ‘insolent’ muscle of the human anatomy.