Tabu caused a stir among critics when it was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival back in February. The film opens with an offbeat prologue. A melancholic Portuguese explorer, heartbroken after the loss of a lover and haunted by her ghostly image, journeys through Africa and appears to commit suicide by feeding himself to a crocodile. Following this, the narrator of the prologue suggests that the explorer has been reincarnated as a crocodile. It is clear by this point that Tabu is far from conventional.
The prologue is then revealed as a film being screened in a cinema. Pilar (Teresa Madruga), another in a long line of art cinema characters who find solace in the glow of the silver screen, sits captivated. Initially we follow Pilar, but soon we meet her elderly neighbour, gambling addict Aurora (Laura Soveral). The plot of Tabu plays out rather like a mystery as Pilar seeks to understand her troubled neighbour. Aurora’s life ultimately becomes the central focus of the narrative, with the entirety of the second part of the film devoted to a flashback of her married life in Africa. Some viewers may feel frustrated that Pilar becomes somewhat sidelined at this point.
The film is presented in black and white, and in an old-fashioned academy-style aspect ratio. This gives Tabu a sense of documentary-style realism. It also serves as a reminder of how striking black and white cinematography can be. Gomes started out as a film critic and his love of film is clear to see. The film’s title and some of its story elements concerning forbidden love are borrowed from F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). The second part of the film plays out as an ode to the great films of the silent era. Dialogue between characters is entirely muted during this latter section, the only speech being that of a voice-over. The inclusion of recognisable pop songs such as The Ronette’s Be My Baby in the soundtrack provides a whimsical note to the proceedings. As with The Artist (2011), Tabu possesses a degree of self-awareness for its silent-era heritage but feels like less of a pastiche.
Gomes uses his characters and locales to explore several themes, of which colonialism is particularly notable. Aurora has a black maid named Santa (Isabel Cardoso) who looks as displaced from her true environment as the exotic-looking potted plants that surround her during several scenes. Santa is working to improve her language skills through reading Robinson Crusoe, perhaps because she identifies with the cultural imperialism enforced on Friday by Crusoe. This colonial subtext may be strongly suggested but it is never made explicit. In common with much European art cinema, the film resists being pinned down to any one single interpretation. To analyse the film from a purely political perspective would be a disservice to the other themes which Gomes explores.
There are, for example, a number of moments that are deeply concerned with human ideas such as unrequited love and personal sacrifice. Ultimately, it is this character based drama that shines through, and consequently the film has enough warmth and wit to appeal to viewers who have no interest in its political subtext. Judging by the critical reaction, Gomes has succeeded in crafting a film which appeals to hardened cinephiles. However, the film’s greatest accomplishment may be the manner in which it achieves this without forfeiting an emotional core and alienating more casual cinemagoers.