Director Miguel Gomes’ aesthetically enchanting Tabu didn’t quite capture my affections like it did many of the nation’s top critics, but it is indeed a film the cinephile eye won’t soon forget. In particular, Rui Poças’ cinematography will linger in your memory for years to come. His use of black-and-white expertly plays off Tabu’s themes of romanticism and nostalgia, accentuating the allurement of Portugal’s colonial period leading up to its end in the early 1960s. For such a dark time in both Portugal and colonized Africa’s past, the black and white tones evince a timeless lusciousness to each scene, emphasizing an Africa that never lost its innate ability to natively shine in spite of enslavement. In fact, it’s the Portuguese colonists who suffer the most – their individual dilemmas are exposed to the viewing audience as byproducts of Western culture. We tend to be overly dramatic, our romanticist tendencies ridiculous and foolish when set against the backdrop of a mellow Africa, a part of the world that history once referred to as “The Dark Continent.” Tabu, despite some pretty bizarre narrative choices and quasi-forgettable characters, succeeds in showing us that “darkness” isn’t a physical entity defined by landscapes and people — it’s an internal one brought to fruition by those with power over others. Ironically, those in control are powerless to stop their dark tidings from rising to the surface.
Tabu is the oddest sort of film, mostly because we aren’t entirely sure what we are watching – whose story this is and why it matters – until well past the forty-five minute mark. Gomes’ visual charmer begins with a vague scene of a man traversing the African jungle, voice-over taking charge as the man (who I assume is one of the earliest Portuguese colonists) explains in abstractions about the land he is visiting, “The Dark Continent” of Africa. The entire time, confusion abounds in the mind of the viewer, and the cryptic monologue uttered alongside a comically-skewed random encounter with a bejeweled native woman, makes one feel as though they’ve stepped into the hybrid world of Mel Brooks-meets-Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Patience, I tell myself, patience.
The film then jumps several centuries ahead to present-day Lisbon, Portugal, where we are fooled into believing we’ve finally met the protagonist of Tabu. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a middle-aged woman who does charitable work for her church, including the selfless deed of providing a place for young girls to stay when they travel to Lisbon on religious assignment. When one of the girls is a no-show at the airport, Pilar grows concerned and worried, wondering if she herself is an inadequate provider to her faith and society. It’s apparent that Pilar carries a great deal of guilt, but why that is or why these religious excursions mean so much to her is never fully explained in the film. That’s somewhat of a slight against the screenplay, but we ignore the head-scratching vagueness soon after we meet Pilar’s vitriol-spewing neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral).
Aurora is a deranged old woman, determined to convince Pilar that her loyal-to-a-fault Cape-Verdean caregiver, Santa, is a voodoo-skilled witch who is trying to kill her. Aurora is also under the false impression that her daughter left her in the care of Santa intentionally, and wants nothing to do with her mother. Pilar knows Aurora is nothing but a relic of a racist Portuguese past, but her charitable nature can’t ignore the mentally-debilitating dilemmas – including a gambling addiction, as we later find out – of an elderly woman that could be Pilar in a few years time.
Pilar’s adventures with Aurora come to a sudden halt when Aurora falls gravely ill, a final request pending before she goes into the afterlife. Aurora wishes to reunite with a mysterious man no one close to her has heard of before: Gian Luca Ventura. When Santa and Pilar finally discover his whereabouts and come face-to-face with the man, he begins telling them a story of when he met Aurora back in Africa, just before the colonial wars began. It’s here we discover that Tabu’s central narrative revolves around an hour-and-a-half flashback sequence, told completely in voice-over without any dialogue spoken by the white colonists.
It is in this transition to the dreamy past of a hot summer in Africa that Gomes is finally able to sink his teeth into the story he’s wanted to tell: the passionate love affair between Aurora and Gian Luca Ventura in a beautiful countryside adjacent to Mount Tabu. Aurora, the daughter of a wealthy colonist, gets married at an early age, but soon begins a fling with a handsome officer that steals her heart away with song and danger. Because this portion of the film is dominated by voice-overs, it’s impossible to fully sympathize with the younger versions of Ventura and Aurora. Since these younger versions do not speak aloud, we don’t have a clear sense of their personalities, thereby making them statues of human expression. They merely become symbols of white privilege, whose darkness rears its nefarious head when contrasted with the tranquility of Africa and its enslaved inhabitants. Aurora and Ventura’s relationship plays out in standard soap opera/telenovela fashion: the stakes are high and the sacrifice for keeping the relationship alive is usually earned with blood and evil misdeeds.
Because there is nothing about Aurora and Ventura that will draw you in emotionally, I found myself wondering if Gomes even wanted us to care about them. I would assume not since they are written so paper-thin, their conquests of love unimportant compared to the more interesting racial politics and human injustices that could have been explored further. What is profound about Tabu is the way the sound design spews forth the underlying message of the film. Sounds of rain droplets, bugs buzzing, and other voices the African jungle provides are brought to the forefront. The white colonists are reduced to silence, almost as though Gomes is saying, “Their words and their self-absorbed dramas mean nothing. This beautiful land rightly drowns their voices out.” The African people themselves are given the freedom to speak in their native tongue without condemnation or the intrusion of the “comforting” English language on dominant blast.
In all, Tabu’s visual construction is its message. The characters that appear in Tabu are forgettable and, for the most part, one-dimensional or have arcs left intentionally open. Tabu makes us fall in love with a culture and continent we have no in-depth knowledge on, just from our own indignation of having to put up with a cliché, Western European romance between two individuals that corrupt their youth in more ways than you’d imagine. The ideas and themes that Gomes reaches for are worth discussing, but could have yielded a stronger response had the central story and its human figurines been a tad more engrossing. While I was at times more annoyed and confused than riveted and absorbed by Tabu’s divergent narrative approach, Rui Poças’ gorgeous cinematography and industrious use of black-and-white made for quite an unforgettable film-going experience. Over time, Tabu is a film I envision on many film course syllabi, its disjunctive storytelling and technical excellence a feast for the theoretic mind of the film student body.
Adopt Films’ Tabu opens this Friday, January 25th in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Be sure to check out Miguel Gomes’ visual masterpiece when it arrives at a theater near you, as it topped a few film critics’ “Top 10 of 2012,” including HitFix’s Guy Lodge.
Here is the official trailer of Tabu for your viewing pleasure: