Tabu is a star crossed lovers tale told in two parts.
Part One, ‘Paradise Lost’, is set in modern-day Lisbon. Using the film language of a contemporary European character drama, it is slow and contemplative. We meet the Juliet of this Romeo and Juliet tale, Aurora (dawn), as an old lady coming to the end of her life. While she is impulsive and liable to mood swings her two carers are passive and reserved characters. Her neighbour, Pilar (pillar, support), is sent on a mission to find the old flame of Aurora’s life, Ventura (good fortune), who’s recounting of their youth narrates Part Two.
Part Two, ‘Paradise’, is set in 1960’s Africa on the mountain Tabu (taboo). While many have described this section as a silent movie, as this whole section plays out purely in voice-over, I would say it is closer to the French New Wave in terms of film language and mood. There is a playfulness at work in the juxtapositions of images to narration, a sense of whimsy and the feeling of a tall tale being imparted. We meet Ventura as a young carefree Valentino, who has followed his friend, MÃ¡rio, to Africa. It is here that he begins an affair with Aurora under the nose of her husband.
Shot on black and white 16mm at full frame, each grainy shot is left to play out. A languid pace is set that you will either fall into or be at odds with. In Part One, this pace creates a melancholy air, a feeling of a slow city, a predictable life, a slow dripping of sand counting out the final hour. In Part Two though, this pace creates humour, a response of laughter from a moment or pause left to play out a tiny bit too long. If you find humour in the quiet opening of Lynch’s Eraserhead or the train ride in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, you will be in tune with the sense of play present here.
Director Miguel Gomes has made a carefully crafted film full of symbolism. Many have reacted to this film with accusations of pretentiousness but the understanding of craft and confident use of film language argues against that. I entered this film on the morning of a rainy day, with the city draped over in sheets of grey. That felt like the right way to approach a slight film like this. Tabu is a languid film that you will float along with – if you are in the right mood. If not, you might be swimming to shore pretty fast.