Film review – Tabu (2012)

17 May 2013
Tabu: Ventura (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora (Ana Moreira)

Ventura (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora (Ana Moreira)

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.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

MIFF 2012: Feature film picks

31 July 2012

The Melbourne International Film Festival opens this Thursday so I thought I’d share my festival picks, even though they are based on a somewhat random sampling of what I have just happened to have seen. Many of my favourite films in the festival are Shorts and the Next Gen films, but I’ve covered those two programs in detail already. Which brings me to the obligatory disclaimer that I work for MIFF in the programming department so have zero objectivity about the festival. Having said that, all the films discussed here are ones that I had nothing at all to do with selecting.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 

The textures and colour make this film a visual masterpiece, and when that is combined with an amazing performance by the film’s young star and an emotive coming-of-age tale that incorporates visions of prehistoric times with future climate change catastrophes, the result is a Magical Realist triumph. I cannot wait to see this film again.

Holy Motors

I am so thankful that films this playful, provocative and puzzling are still made. The latest by Leos Carax, who is the subject of a retrospective at the festival, is a fascinating exploration of dreams, film genres and the effect that technology is having on the way audiences experience cinema. At least that’s what I took from it.

Ernest & Celestine

As two of the three directors on this film are the geniuses behind the deliriously funny A Town Called Panic, I was not expecting it to be a traditional hand-drawn animation that would be so incredibly charming. This gorgeous parable about a mouse and a bear who become friends, despite being told that they should fear and hate each other, is not only funny but so sweet that at moments I was possibly a little misty eyed.


Beautiful shot in black-and-white in 4:3, this mesmerising film set in Portugal and African uses selected techniques from early cinema to create a dreamlike story about illicit love, race, colonialism and melancholy.

[REC] Genesis

While not as strong as the original film, which is one of my favourite contemporary zombie films, this loose prequel is a lot of fun. It does abandon the found footage approach early on, but the resulting wedding-based flesh-eating mayhem is a lot of fun.

Side by Side

A really accessible,  in-depth and entertaining look at the way the film industry – on every level – is making the transition from film-based technology to digital. This documentary contains interviews with many of the major players in the film industry and gives voice to a wide range of viewpoints. It challenged and possibly even changed several of my opinions.


A film shot in the first-person about a serial killer who scalps his victims after killing them gets points alone for audacity. This is a slickly made cinematic nasty that I really enjoyed being shocked and disturbed by. There is also some really impressive filmmaking on display, used to mimic the fractured way the delusional and deranged protagonist views the world.

Alois Nebel

The stunning black and white rotoscoping in this Czech animation perfectly complements the dark and sombre story about a loner train dispatcher whose experiences during World War II come back to haunt him. There is a remarkable sense of stillness in this film, which gives it a beautiful meditative quality.

Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self Portrait

Like its subject Serge Gainsbourg, this is a rambling film that is sometimes infuriating, something baffling, self-important, self-deprecating, all over the place and constantly fascinating. The combination of archival footage and audio recorded by Gainsbourg provides an impressionist portrait of the man, told out of chronological sequence and far more illuminating than the biopic about him that came out in 2010.

100 Bloody Acres

This horror/comedy is a tremendous amount of fun. As the two brothers with a creative solution to making fertiliser, Angus Sampson is wonderfully wicked while Damon Herriman is hilariously endearing.

Have a great MIFF everybody!

Thomas Caldwell
MIFF Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator