TABU, the new film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes which had its first area screening at Northwestern University's Block Cinema on Friday, is a tale told in two parts—one set in the present, and one set in the past. One character, a woman named Aurora, connects the stories. We meet her at the end of her life, then adventure into her past.
TABU’s title and structure are borrowed from the beloved 1931 film of the same name by Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau, which told the story of two lovers who flee an idyllic island in Bora Bora (“Paradise”) to a colonized island (“Paradise Lost.”) Gomes inverts the natural order of these sequences. We begin with paradise lost in modern day Portugal, where we meet Aurora, elderly but spunky, who is looked after by a black housekeeper named Santa. The latter half of the film is paradise; the romantic, elegant wildness of life in Portugal’s African colonies, where the youthful Aurora was married and became pregnant, while concurrently engaging in a fiery, bittersweet tryst with another man. In the end, however, Gomes’s film is is so deeply concerned with exploring not the characters, but the lingering ramifications of Portuguese colonialism, and viewers hoping to find something more universal in its narrative will likely be disappointed.
Among the other recent entries of this breed of filmmaking, TABU fits neatly alongside the work of Gomes’s Portuguese contemporaries Pedro Costa and Manoel de Oliveira, both of whom also favor a languid thoughtfulness and narrative restraint. Those familiar with the films of Apichatpong Weerasethekul will also find many corollaries, not only with the film’s two-part structure, but also its heavy blanket of mysticism.
Though the film unfolds slowly, any frustration with Gomes's modest, plodding narrative is partially forgiven by TABU's second segment, shot in black and white without dialogue and set on the African plantation of Aurora's youth. Here Gomes brings the film’s slow-burn to a kind of climax and releases a brief emotional detonation. But TABU's journey between past and present isn't compelling enough without the needed subtext, a component which many viewers, especially in the west, will be missing. Ultimately, TABU will reward those attuned to the legacy of Portugal’s 1000-year saga of colonial strife, and keep casual viewers at a partial remove.
It’s worth noting that Gomes has also worked as a film critic, and has authored essays on film theory. This puts him in league with directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, and hints at why he might favor this highly intellectual method of filmmaking. There’s plenty of lovely visual poetry on display, however, particularly in the gorgeous African vistas of the much more lovable second section. Music is also used to wonderful, sometimes goofy effect (including an on-the-nose nod to MULHOLLAND DRIVE featuring a Spanish version the Ronette’s “Be My Baby.”)
Perhaps it’s enough to witness the complicated sins of Aurora’s past and understand that her tortured, pampered youth is Gomes's stand-in for Portugal’s historical scars. But when we finally leave Aurora, it's tough to avoid the feeling that, in more ways than one, we’re only really responding to half of what’s there.