In part homage to F. W. Murnau’s film of the same name, Portuguese melodrama Tabu is a film split into two halves which revolve around a Portuguese woman who grew up in Africa and grew old in Lisbon. Shot on actual film and in a narrow 1.37:1 aspect the film exudes an air of the silent era which is doubled with a second act which features no spoken dialogue. Instead of traditional dialogue or even old style intertitles the audience is treated to a narration from an older version of one of the central characters. The second act isn’t totally silent though as background noise of the African bush can be heard while the characters are muted. It is a brave film making decision but works to great effect. Tabu takes some time to get into and will be an instant turn off to many (including me) but once I got into it and especially once I reached Part 2, I was hooked by its enduring story, picturesque setting and exquisite style.
The film opens with an enigmatic prologue set in Africa and telling the story of star crossed lovers. This beautiful opening also introduces a crocodile which goes on to have further significance later on. Unlike the two main sections of the film, this opening could be timeless. There are hints of an early colonial setting but the way it is filmed gives it an eternal feel.
The film then steps into Part one –Paradise Lost in which we find an elderly woman called Aurora (Laura Soveral) living in Lisbon with her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso). Aurora is lonely, going senile and believes that the world is against her while across the hallway Pilar (Teresa Madruga) has a similar loneliness but also an undying kindness. As Aurora reaches the end of her life she calls out for Ventura and talks wildly of crocodiles, farms and Africa. Part two – Paradise then opens as told by the old Ventura as he looks back on his time in Colonial Africa and his friendship with the young Aurora (Ana Moreira). At times I found Part one uninspiring and despite some fine cinematography and solid acting I wasn’t able to get into it. I couldn’t see where it was going and unlike Amour for instance, its tale of old age didn’t interest or excite me. The loneliness was apparent but there was little to hold my attention. Part two however is wonderful and amongst the best hour of cinema 2012 produced.
I have to wonder if the entire first act wasn’t just a device to introduce the old Ventura as Aurora’s story in Lisbon had little impact on her African tale. The only relevance it has is perhaps as a religious or spiritual symbol of punishment and retribution. I personally would have been happier with five minutes of modern day story and then an hour and a half of the quasi-silent African side. Once we arrive in Africa everything changes. The semi-silent style is interesting and refreshing and reminded me a little of ModernTimes and mid period Chaplin when he experimented with sound while keeping The Tramp silent. Here the narration tells you everything you need to know and although perhaps looking back with rose tinted glasses, the old Ventura tells a delightful story of colonial exuberance and sexual excess.
The film has been criticised for glossing over the ethics and issues of Colonialism but for me the film isn’t about that. Ventura looks back to a time when he had freedom and a comfortable life and although that may not have been true for the indigenous population that isn’t any concern of the character. My Grandparents themselves lived in Africa during the 1950s and pictures of their house and grounds were remarkably similar to that of the film. My Nan’s stories were of parties and entertaining and of exotic wildlife not the lives of her servants. While this isn’t perhaps a nice way of looking back at her time in Africa, these were the things that she remembered. She didn’t look back with the mind of a modern guilty European but as someone who lived there at the time, much like the characters in the film.
The acting in both parts is excellent and I was drawn in by the screen presence of the beautiful Ana Moreira and the dashing Carloto Cotta who looks like a cross between a perfume model and 20s film star. Both of them acted silently but got across all the emotion that was required. In the modern setting Laura Soveral is outstanding. I’ve seen few more impressive performances all year. Teresa Madruga is also terrific. The movie is really well scored which was imperative given the silent nature of the second act and the design of the African setting was excellent. As I’ve already said, it looks identical to my Grandparent’s photos. The real star though is Director Miguel Gomes who crafts a terrific film combining two different stories which are linked together with ease. His decision to shoot entirely in black and white is well judged and slight graining in the film stock for the Africa setting helps to further differentiate the two stories. He is a film maker I will definitely be looking out for in the future.
Tabu is half a superb film and half a good film. Had I not been so bored by the opening it would be up there with the best of 2012 and indeed Sight & Sound voted it the second best movie of the year. For me the first act drags on too long but the section in Africa is outstanding in its technical proficiency, beauty, direction, story and acting.