In memoriam – Tabu review

Tabu – Starring Teresa MadrugaAna Moreira, and Carloto Cotta. Directed by Miguel Gomes. Originally published June 14, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

Tabu plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 9, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date. This review was first run during the Sydney Film Festival.

Miguel Gomes‘ Tabu plays like a dream, but not in the David Lynchian fashion that has come to define the cinematic depiction of the REM state. It moves from story-thread to story-thread with little rhyme or reason, and only in the cold light of morning do we see the connective tissue. What may have actually transpired between its bookends may be forgotten, but the emotions it stirred and the images it scorched will remain. Does the plot make sense? Probably, but that doesn’t really matter. Tabu is about memories and fantasies and folklores, and since when have any of them been consistent with truth or logic.

There is really only one story being told in Tabu, broken up into three distinct parts. The first is a legend, narrated by Gomes in Portuguese with a peculiarly witty and dry delivery. He tells of a melancholic man haunted by the ghost of his partner, driven to wander Africa and eventually surrender himself to the teeth of a crocodile (itself later possessed by his melancholy). We then find ourselves in the present day with lovelorn Pilar (Teresa Madruga) entertaining a courtship by a bumbling admirer and weeping in a theatre screening an old revival flick. Pilar’s eccentric elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral) causes nothing but havoc for her maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Later in the picture, we jump back in time to Aurora’s youth (then played by Ana Moreira), and learn of her own wildly romantic history in colonial Africa, as told by old flame Ventura (Carloto Cotta).

The aspect ratio is 4:3, the colour has been sapped from the frame, and the final acts – recalled by Ventura – feature no dialogue, only his narration. It seems a deliberate attempt by Gomes to evoke cinema’s past as we know it. They’re easy cues, but effective. Even though the second half is ostensibly silent (besides the sound effects), don’t think of this as a fun-loving throwback a’la The Artist. We often see the star-crossed lovers talk, and are left to gauge what is going on with their body language, and the way in which the camera conveys their tragic romance.

Tabu is an experiment in storytelling; a test to see how form can enhance a story, even when it seems like it’s intentionally obfuscating it. I don’t know if it always works. It’s a movie that bewildered me in the watching, but has since grown fondly in my mind. Perhaps it’s been tailor made to grow in esteem after the fact; to be looked back on with rose-colored glasses, as the characters here are wont to do with their own life. That may make Gomes’ experiment a success, but I’m not sure it makes for a very entertaining film. I’ll give Tabu this: its wistful style and liquid narrative might actually benefit from the viewer falling in and out of sleep. I should know, as I spent much of the first half struggling to stay awake. Yet still I liked it.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Tabu plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 9, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

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