Under the veneer of civilisation, what ancient desires and impulses lie in our unconscious, waiting to surface like a crocodile patiently waiting for its opportunity to strike? Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes looks to an illicit love affair and his country’s colonial past to explore this question. Tabu adopts many of the visual aesthetics of a classical Hollywood silent film and takes its name and narrative structure from FW Murnau’s 1931 film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. The title Tabu also refers to the setting of the second half of the film: a settlement near the Tabu Mountain in Portuguese Africa during the 1960s. Furthermore, the title evokes the English word ‘taboo’, used to describe something that is considered culturally forbidden. However, while an adultery narrative dominates the dream-like and melodramatic second part of Tabu, adultery is hardly a taboo theme in contemporary cinema. Instead the taboo topic explored by Gomes is the presence of colonialism in the not-so-distant past and how it manifests in modern life. Like the crocodile that is so often seen in the film, the echo of colonialism is ever present.
Tabu reflects personal and collective history through the filter of memory, mythology and secondary representation. The prologue, set sometime early last century when Africa was being explored, is a film being watched in the present day. The first part of the film titled ‘Paradise Lost’ is set in contemporary Lisbon, but is full of visual and narrative references to an earlier era. The final part, titled ‘Paradise’, is a memory presented as a narrated silent film, of an affair in Africa against the backdrop of the move for independence that led to the Portuguese Colonial War.
The Lisbon-set ‘Paradise Lost’ first half of Tabu depicts the relationship between middle-aged social activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga), her elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral) and Aurora’s African housemaid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso). While this section of the film may arguably seem dry compared to what comes later, it reflects the ways the events of Portugal’s colonial past resonate in the present. Racial tensions remain, as expressed by Aurora’s fevered accusations that Santa is using witchcraft to control her. Ironically Santa is improving her Portuguese by reading a translated copy of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, widely regarded as a prototype text for colonialism and known for its idealised representation of the obedient ‘savage’ servant. Meanwhile, images of Portugal’s colonialist past in Africa begin to infiltrate this first half of the film through details such as the pillars in a nursing home being covered with vines.
Tabu is shot in black and white, has the 1.33:1 aspect ratio associated with early cinema and is experimental in its use of sound and dialogue. The effect is different to the overt silent era homage found in The Artist, as it instead appropriates key silent era stylistic techniques to draw attention to the artificiality of the film while still taking the audience into the world of the film (something that Guy Maddin also achieves, but through slightly different stylistic approaches to Gomes).
Ideas of artificiality are spread throughout Tabu, reflecting how cinema is not a reliable historical document and the extent to which the culture created by a colonising country within another country will always feel false and out of place. The over-the-top melodrama of the narration during the prologue, about a melancholic explorer, signals Gomes’s intent to make a film that is removed from any notions of cinematic realism. During the prologue the camera is mostly static with only very slight movements. The figures shown onscreen are not unlike characters from a Wes Anderson film, standing without expression. The visual style juxtaposes against the narrator’s grand tale of loss and loneliness, indicating how stories are embellished in the telling of them.
When Pilar leaves the cinema after watching the film about the explorer, the increased camera movement suggests the handheld style commonly associated with contemporary social-realist cinema. However, Gomes quickly undermines any hint of realism when Pilar engages in a strangely mannered conversation with a backpacker. As neither Pilar nor the backpacker speak the other person’s language, they communicate in English, a secondary language for them both that they speak very formally. The almost absurdist exchange highlights a layer of artificiality in terms of the limitations of communicating in different languages.
The challenges to authenticity continue through ideas of distrust and false appearances. What Aurora says about her daughter is completely different to the reality of the situation, Aurora denies the contents of a letter she sends, Pilar only puts up a disliked painting on the wall in case its painter drops by to visit. After dreaming that her son-in-law was a monkey, Aurora muses of the symbolism and then declares that dreams are unreliable. Pilar goes on a date to the cinema with her painter friend, but he falls asleep so she experiences the film by herself with only the illusion of companionship. A Portuguese version of ‘Be My Baby’ plays on the film’s soundtrack, another fragment of the past returning to the present, made even more explicit when the same version of the song appears again in the second half of the film.
When the film begins its ‘Paradise’ second-half in Africa, the themes become far more pronounced just as the silent-era stylistic influences take over to deliver a mesmerising cinematic experience that reflects the memories of the film’s narrator. While the love affair between a younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) and the explorer Ventura (Carloto Cotta) takes place, the country around them is changing. Gomes never directly depicts the conflicts of the Portuguese Colonial War, but contains references to the violence through reports that are usually delivered during social gatherings.
Perhaps by focusing on the illicit love affair between Aurora and Ventura rather than the rise of the African nationalists, Gomes is making a statement about how trivial stories engage more than important ones. However, their forbidden romance does function as a metaphor for colonialism, where the indulgences of a few result in far greater damages to others. The reoccurring image of the crocodile, which was first seen as the bringer of misery in the film-within-a-film prologue, appears frequently in this second section. Like untamed lust that goes against social order, the desire to conquer and colonise, and the impulse to act violently, the crocodile is a dark, mysterious and ancient force that lies beneath the surface and causes unstoppable devastation when it rises and strikes.
Tabu is a rich puzzle film full of ideas and open to interpretation. Repeat viewings are extremely rewarding in terms of both making more sense out of the film’s distancing yet necessary first half, and for teasing out some of the reoccurring ideas to do with artificiality, cinema, memories, race, colonialism and forbidden love. While the path through this unconventional film is not always obvious, it is a sensuous, mysterious and intoxicating path worth taking.