Directed by: Miguel Gomes.
Written by: Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo.
Starring: Teresa Madruga (Pilar), Laura Soveral (Old Aurora), Ana Moreira (Young Aurora), Henrique Espírito Santo (Old Ventura), Carloto Cotta (Young Ventura), Isabel Muñoz Cardoso (Santa), Ivo Müller (Aurora's Husband), Manuel Mesquita (Mário).
I pride myself on being a fairly adventuresome film watcher. I go see everything from blockbusters to indies, from foreign films to documentaries, to the films that everyone sees to the films that almost no one sees. Miguel Gomes is one of those directors who makes films that send those strange film magazines into a tizzy, but whose films are barely seen by anyone else. I know because I read those magazines, and recently one of them – Cinemascope – not only put his latest film, Tabu, on the cover but named Gomes one of the 50 best directors under 50. I remember hearing of his last film – Our Beloved Month of August – because it did so well on the Indie Wire and Village Voice year end critics’ survey, where it stood out because somehow I had never even heard of it before then. So when I had a chance to see Tabu, I jumped at it – I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I must say, I was disappointed. While Tabu is a marvelous looking film – in glorious black and white, that uses the style of silent film for two of its three parts, the movie failed to engage me in the least – either emotionally or intellectually. After a while, I just grew bored.
The movie opens with a silent film, with narration, of an intrepid explorer in Africa. The style reminded me of those old newsreels you sometimes see, as the man braves the jungles of Africa, and the people and animals around it. This sequence was fascinating to me, because I could never figure out what the hell was happening – was this just a surreal joke? Would it build to something?
We then flash to the first real part of the movie – entitled Paradise Lost. In it, a middle class woman in Portugal, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) goes to the train station to meet the young Polish woman who is supposed to board with her for a while – only to be rejected by the girl, who pretends to be someone else. She then goes home, and receives the first of many phone calls and visits from Aurora – the old woman who lives across the hall and Santa, her live-in African caretaker. Aurora has a daughter somewhere in America, who hardly ever visits or calls. Santa is her only real companion, and she doesn’t like Aurora very much – which is understandable, because Aurora doesn’t seem like a very nice person – just an annoying old lady who imposes herself on everyone around her. When she dies, we meet an old man named Ventura – who will narrate the final segment of the film – Paradise. Again, this segment is made in the style of a silent film, which Ventura narrates. It takes place in his youth, in Africa, where he meets and falls in love with Aurora – who ends up pregnant with his child, even though he is married to someone else. Of course, this will not end well for anyone – and a murder will take place, although not the person we expect Aurora to kill.
Reading some reviews of Tabu – most of which were rapturous in their praise – I discover that most people see the film as a kind of statement on Portugal’s past imperialism in Africa. It is true that each of the three segments have some connection to Africa – and see the African people as some sort of exotic “other”, that no one really takes seriously on their own terms. In the prologue and the final segment, no African characters make any impression at all – they are simply in the background, for exotic effect on the characters’ lives. In the middle segment, the only African character is Santa – and even she hangs in the background, as if not sure she is allowed to have an opinion on anything.
If that is the point of the movie, it’s an easy point, and is made early and often throughout the film. It may have been a good idea to give a real role to an African character, but then, I supposed that is beside the point – the point being that while Portugal had control over parts of Africa, like Aurora has control over Santa – they don’t for a second consider their own thoughts or feelings – just how they can serve themselves. A fair point, but not one to build an entire movie around – at least not this movie, which focuses on the shallow lives of the Portuguese characters – which again, may well be the point, but not a very interesting one.
Compare Gomes’ film to that of another recent Portuguese master – Pedro Costa. Costa’s film, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth – really are masterpieces, even if most people have never heard of them. In them, Costa mixes fiction and documentary, and repeats scenes to make a point. But the people in his movie snap into sharp focus in their sad, lonely lives. Gomes’ film is all style and message, and never engages in terms of story or character. The subtext of the movie may well be interesting – but in order to get people to read for the subtext, you at least have to engage them on the text level. For me anyway, Tabu doesn’t. However if it sounds interesting to you, maybe it will be.