Cinema's Past and Future Are on Display in 'Tabu'

Entering into Gomes’s hypnotic triptych, Tabu gives the viewer a chance to see just how far cinema has come, and just how far it can go in the hands of a master.


Director: Miguel Gomes
Cast: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta
Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2013-10-15

With Tabu, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes has crafted a rapturous example of engaging cinema that also functions on a heady, boundary-pushing plane, as well as being a bit avant-garde in its formal approach. Divided into three chapters, Gomes’s film luxuriates in cinematic tradition while at the same time modernizing it.

Tabu borrows its title, structure and thematic foundation from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 intrepid classic of the same name, even occasionally referencing that film in some of its framing and compositions. But this isn’t a remake; rather it’s a loose retelling of common themes that utilizes some of the techniques of the source material in a way that pays tribute to them. A particularly potent pastiche that, through Gomes’s deft artistic control, creates something timeless.

The film begins with a man in the African jungle (Gomes in character) waxing philosophical about the mythology of the land and its inhabitants. Like the opening of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, this meta-prologue is quickly revealed to be a film being shown in a cinema. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is the viewer of that film, a lonely do-gooder in her early 60s who resides in Lisbon. She lives in an apartment complex near Aurora (Laura Soveral), an octogenarian whom she indulges by listening to her meandering stories. Occasionally, Pilar mediates conflicts between Aurora and her caretaker, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), a woman from the African island of Cape Verde.

Each of the three women share a pervasive loneliness and resignation, save for Aurora’s occasional spirited outbursts and dramas that invariably sweep the other women out of their humdrum lives. As Aurora’s health fades, her pontification becomes increasingly incoherent, though it retains intensity. She speaks about a crocodile and a man, Gian Luca.

Gomes’s Tabu opens with “Paradise: Lost” and is filmed in 35mm, a traditional film stock, and shown in black and white, a captivating, classic color palette. Here, the presentation recalls cinema's past, though Gomes modernizes the presentation by inverting the structural component.

Murnau’s narrative is linear, starting with “Paradise”, the beginning of a couple’s doomed relationship, then following with “Paradise: Lost", or the eventuation of the story. Gomes places the “Paradise: Lost” title card after his prologue, though it’s not clear until the end of that section that he’s flipping the script entirely.

Aurora dies, leaving Pilar and Santa more perplexed than ever at their friend’s deathbed histrionics. They track down Gian Luca, who reminisces about Aurora and their life together as young lovers. With his voiceover, the film segues into “Paradise”, Aurora’s origin story. Gomes switches to 16mm for this section, and somewhat reverts to the ways in which that increasingly rare film stock may have been presented initially, with no dialogue.

In the entire “Paradise” section there is only Gian Luca’s entrancing narration to guide the viewer, and Santa and Pilar, ostensibly, through the story. Gomes shows Aurora in her youth (Ana Moreira), beautiful and confident (she’s a champion wild game shooter), living at the bottom of Mount Tabu, a mysterious location haunted by legend and implicitly fraught with post-colonial tensions.

Aurora meets Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta) after she’s already married and expecting a baby. Their romance is steamy, made more illicit as a result of it being extra-marital; there’s something exotic about the location that entices their passion.

This section, presented last, explains Aurora’s stubbornness and frequent racism (she often refers to Santa with outdated terminology). She is the daughter of a wealthy Portuguese man who moved his family to Africa to exploit the land and, probably, its cheap labor. In her youth she had African servants, lived in a grand estate, and was part of a tortured, passionate love affair.

As an older woman she’s mostly alone, broke, and out of step with modern life. Her trajectory is shown through two distinctly different filming techniques, as her romanticized youth plays out through the lush, blurred lines of Gomes’s 16mm presentation, and the harsh consequences of those times is shown in the brisk, crisper dichotomies of 35mm black and white.

Through all this there’s the subtext of post-colonialism, but Gomes lets it unfold mostly through the furtive gestures of the people who profit from it the most, namely Aurora. That’s not really the point, though. Murnau’s film deals more directly with this theme, indicting the colonialists by way of the downfall of a couple’s destruction, humanizing a greater struggle, whereas Gomes’s film is primarily a relationship drama that only secondarily touches on the subject.

Paradise, as it were, is youth, love, and opportunity. We initially see the unfortunate ripple effects of losing those things without knowing how it happened, making the reality of it more cautionary and sobering. Pilar is the first section’s protagonist, but it’s not clear how she factors in until later when it becomes clear that the story really revolves around Aurora.

Once Aurora’s character has been defined, Gomes’s thematic intentions reveal themselves. Pilar is a sullen woman who tries her best to remain active and involved. She participates in demonstrations, works, and helps take care of an ailing neighbor. Yet there’s no indication that she’s really lived. No spark of life. Gomes provides no back story to indicate that Pilar has any excitement from which she could draw.

Aurora, on the other hand, is burdensome, but she’s also lively and seasoned. We see just how seasoned she is once her history has been written, but even without that her way of being is still somewhat appealing. If there were one takeaway, it would be no regrets.

The choice to almost exclusively forego diegetic sound (there is ambient, environmental noise but no dialogue) in the film’s second half shows just how confident Gomes is in his ability to create a unique world. It’s not until Tabu is almost over that this choice even becomes apparent, which is a true testament to the ingenuity on display.

Tabu is about many things – love, mythology, post-colonialism -- but it never feels burdened by the heaviness of them. Tabu earned raves upon its 2012 festival circuit, finishing the year atop many critics list, including the prestigious Sight & Sound Poll. Entering into Gomes’s hypnotic triptych gives the viewer a chance to see just how far cinema has come, and just how far it can go in the hands of a master.

There are no special features with this DVD.


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