Now Playing: Tabu

Tabu
dir. Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal

Rating: 9.6

tabu

The bottom line: “You can run as long as you can and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”

Premiering in the greater Chicago area for a one-off screening at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema this Friday, and currently playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Tabu, a hypnotic art film from the young Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes. This exciting, thematically-dense, cinematically-entrancing movie, shot on real, eye-filling black-and-white film stock (oh yeah!), tells the story of a doomed love affair set against the backdrop of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. It also boasts a fascinating and complex two-part structure, the filmmakers’ assured formal control of which is never less than dazzling. This is only Gomes’ third feature-length movie as a writer/director, following his acclaimed earlier efforts The Face You Deserve (2004) and Our Beloved Month of August (2008), neither of which I’ve yet seen but both of which I’m now eager to check out as soon as possible. Tabu received its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival at the beginning of 2012 where it won two prizes before traveling to other festivals around the globe and considerably upping Gomes’ international profile. For Chicago cinephiles who may be curious as to what the fuss is about, I couldn’t recommend Friday’s screening more highly; a trek up to Evanston would be richly rewarded (among many other glories, you’ll get to hear a bitchin’ Portuguese cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” – twice).

In recent decades, Portugal’s most high-profile cinematic exports have been the films of Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa. Tabu is similar to the work of those filmmakers in some respects – the affectless performances of Gomes’ entire cast often recall the flat, neutral line readings of the former, while his unlikely thematic mash-up of cinephilia and colonialism might put one in the mind of the latter. But Tabu is also part of what might be considered a wider contemporary pan-European trend: the attempt of young filmmakers to provide a moral reckoning with their governments’ past colonial exploits in Africa, a difficult and, until recently, somewhat taboo subject to broach cinematically (not unlike the topic of, say, slavery in American movies). The French director Claire Denis might be said to be the spiritual godmother of this trend, having explored the subject in her first film (1988’s Chocolat) and returning to it regularly ever since with increasingly disturbing results (e.g., 1999’s Beau Travail and 2009’s White Material). More recently, 2011 saw the release of Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness, a powerful, unsettling culture-clash drama about a German doctor from the World Health Organization stationed in Cameroon who “goes native” and loses his mind like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Interestingly, Sleeping Sickness, like Tabu, also has a bifurcated structure – with each half taking place on a separate continent and separated by a span of years. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both movies were co-produced by the gifted German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else).

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The content: Tabu begins with a short, mysterious prologue where a European explorer in safari clothes is traveling through a jungle somewhere in southern Africa. A male narrator (director Gomes) describes the unnamed explorer’s adventures using florid, romantic language, which is presented in ironic counterpoint to the the more muted and melancholy images. This “intrepid explorer,” we learn, is haunted by the literal ghost of his deceased wife (who speaks aloud the quote at the beginning of this review). While none of the characters from the prologue figure into the main story proper, the scene nonetheless allows Gomes to establish the movie’s unique poetic tone and also one of its most prominent themes – the inability of escaping one’s own heart. There is also the intriguing suggestion that the prologue may be a film that is being watched by one of the characters within the first part of the story, which is titled “Paradise Lost” and set in contemporary Lisbon. In this section, Gomes introduces us to a kindly, middle-aged woman named Pilar and her elderly neighbor, a compulsive gambler named Aurora. Pilar is concerned for Aurora’s health because the old woman has been exhibiting signs of dementia and complaining that her black servant, Santa, is a witch. On her deathbed shortly afterwards, Aurora puts Pilar in touch with an old lover, Ventura, an Italian expatriate living in Portugal with whom she has had no contact in decades. The elderly Ventura tells Pilar a story that serves as a catalyst for the flashback that constitutes the film’s second half. This second part, titled “Paradise,” is set in the 1960s and depicts the illicit affair between Ventura, who, as a handsome young cad, played drums in a rock and roll band, and a young Aurora, who was then married to and pregnant by another man while living on a farm in “Mount Tabu,” Africa. The passionate affair between Aurora and Ventura, featuring one of the most gorgeously photographed and erotic sex scenes in memory, is eventually found out by a third character (the lead singer of the band Ventura plays in), and this discovery leads to murder and tragedy for all.

The form: in addition to Tabu‘s overarching two-part structure, which is borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same title (although there, because the story progresses chronologically, the “lost” part comes last), there are many other formal strategies employed by Gomes allowing him to carefully organize his disparate narrative elements. Most obvious are the pointed contrasts in style between the two parts: while both sections are shot in black-and-white in the almost-square aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (ubiquitous in the silent and early sound eras, dead after the advent of widescreen cinematography, but thankfully resurrected in recent years), “Paradise Lost” was shot in super-sharp, high-contrast 35mm film stock, while “Paradise” was shot on grainier – and blurrier – 16mm. This gives each half a distinctive look illustrating the idea that the present is more “realistic” than the foggy and dreamlike “past” (which, in this case, may be the memories of one or more characters rather than any kind of objective reality). This notion is furthered by the contrasting way that each section is broken down into further chapters: “Paradise Lost” takes place over a few days in late December and early January, and each scene begins with a title stating the date (“December 31,” “January 1,” etc.). “Paradise” takes place over the better part of a year, and each scene begins with a title stating the month. This may indicate that the images of “Paradise Lost” belong to the characters’ fading memories – fragmentary, elliptical and lacking the specificity of their memories of the more recent past. Finally, the most important stylstic contrast lies in the audio: while the sound design of “Paradise Lost” is relatively conventional in the way it mixes dialogue, music and effects, “Paradise” eschews location dialogue entirely in favor of voice-over narration. The second half is essentially a “silent movie,” mostly narrated by Ventura (from, we assume, the vantage point of the present day), but we occasionally hear Aurora reading letters in voice-over as well. In one instance, we hear her read a letter that Ventura claims he destroyed, suggesting that at least some parts of this section originate outside of the limited scope of Ventura’s point-of-view.

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Of course, Gomes’ preoccupation with form would count for little if it did not appropriately serve his content; his provocative juxtaposition of the film’s two halves ultimately says something profound about time, memory, old age, love and death. By presenting the stories of old and young Aurora consecutively and in reverse order, Gomes asks viewers to mentally superimpose the image of the young character over that of her elderly self. The effect is the cinematic equivalent of that shocking epiphany many young people have upon realizing their grandparents were once just like them – with similar hopes and fears and even passionate love affairs. One of the great joys in watching Tabu stems from the way we synthesize “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise” in our minds. And this may be just what Pilar, the person to whom Ventura is telling his story, is also doing: the dreamy images of the film’s second half may be Pilar‘s fantasy of who young Aurora was, instead of either objective reality or Ventura’s memories. Or they may be some combination of all three of these possibilities. Whatever the case, splitting the film into two halves of roughly equal length creates a narrative rupture that increases the film’s overall sense of mystery. (Even the most minimal intercutting between the two halves – something a lesser filmmaker might have been tempted to do – would have reduced the ambiguity about what the second half “means.”) But there are also similarly provocative ruptures within each half. The highlight of “Paradise Lost,” for instance, is a rambling monologue given by Aurora in an Estoril casino where she describes to Pilar a dream she had of being raped by a monkey; the scene begins with traditional shot/reverse shot setups between the two characters but the monologue concludes with a lengthy take in which Aurora delivers her lines directly to Gomes’ camera. Audaciously, Aurora appears to be physically attached to the camera rig (a la Emil Jannings in the famous drunk scene in The Last Laugh) as it circumscribes a complete 360-degree pan around the room. This stylized camera movement creates a sense of unreality – for one thing, it seems to remove Pilar, the person being addressed, from the location – but it also perfectly corresponds to Aurora’s disordered mind and personifies Gomes’ highly-developed sense of film aesthetics.

Although more stately and less batshit crazy than Holy Motors, my favorite film of 2012, Tabu is nonetheless similar to Leos Carax’ masterpiece in the way that it mines the history of cinema (reference points range from the Lumiere brothers’ Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs from 1900 to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line from 1998) in order to gloriously affirm the vitality of the motion picture medium in the 21st century, and refute the strangely trendy notion that the movies, and/or “movie culture,” are somehow dying or dead. Gomes reminds us that we should not ultimately be using box-office receipts to gauge the state of the art, but rather the creativity and originality of the films themselves. As long as movies like Tabu are being made, the cinema will never die.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

16 responses to “Now Playing: Tabu

  • My Blog is Three-Years-Old | White City Cinema

    […] (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 9.6 Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 9.6 Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.7 Film […]

  • Top Ten Films of 2013 | White City Cinema

    […] This lyrical and entrancing black-and-white movie, which boasts an intriguing two-part structure, announced the arrival of a major talent in the person of 39-year-old Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (who had worked as a film critic and made just two features previously). The first half, entitled “Paradise Lost,” concerns the death of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman and compulsive gambler suffering from dementia in contemporary Lisbon. The second half, entitled “Paradise,” flashes back to Aurora’s youth when she was the beautiful wife of a colonialist-farmer, living on “Mount Tabu” in Africa, and having an affair with Ventura, another Portuguese ex-patriate and the drummer in a rock-and-roll band. I loved everything about this movie: its dreaminess, its eroticism, and its extended poetic reflections on time and memory. And this is not to mention that it also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1931 film of the same title and features a bitching Portuguese-language cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Oh yeah! Full review here. […]

  • Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest | White City Cinema

    […] This lyrical and entrancing black-and-white movie, which boasts an intriguing two-part structure, announced the arrival of a major talent in the person of 39-year-old Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (who had worked as a film critic and made just two features previously). The first half, entitled “Paradise Lost,” concerns the death of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman and compulsive gambler suffering from dementia in contemporary Lisbon. The second half, entitled “Paradise,” flashes back to Aurora’s youth when she was the beautiful wife of a colonialist-farmer, living on “Mount Tabu” in Africa, and having an affair with Ventura, another Portuguese ex-patriate and the drummer in a rock-and-roll band. I loved everything about this movie: its dreaminess, its eroticism, and its extended poetic reflections on time and memory. And this is not to mention that it also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1931 film of the same title and features a bitching Portuguese-language cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Oh yeah! Full review here. […]

  • Johnny Bear

    When watching Tabu and reading this review, the two pieces of the film that stand out to me the most are generally the way in which it was filmed and recorded, and the structure of the film itself. I think both are very important to each other, and require the other in order to work properly. If the two parts were separated by actual colors, it would be too much of a contrast. Having black and white feels needed in order to connect to the two parts together. I think the choice to film each half with different types of film was the perfect amount of contrast visually. I will say, at times I found the two halves difficult to connect at times, however, there were certain pieces that helped to bring it around every so often. The hat worn by Ventura in Paradise was the same, at least stylistically, as the one he wears in the first part of the film while in the car and attending the funeral. I found him easier to connect with the past than Aurora, but this may be due to the fact that we primarily hear only his narration throughout the majority of Paradise. That being said, I’m glad the letters from Aurora were narrated by Aurora. It helps connect her to Paradise as well and helps bring the concept of past vs. present together.

  • Bryan Peterson

    Reading this review after watching the movie in class has caused me to think more about the movie than I had been after just watching the movie. For example, I never even considered that the young Aurora that we see could have just been Pilar’s imagination of her and not the Aurora which that come’s from Ventura’s memories.
    On an unrelated not I found it very interesting that the movie used two different types of film which, if I’m going to be completely honest, if I wasn’t told that before watching the film I might not have even caught on to that. However, I am very glad that I did due to the fact that I believe that if I wasn’t paying attention to that then I might have lost interest in the film, which would have been unfortunate because this film was very well put together and without knowing about the second half the movie would have felt incomplete and not nearly as enjoyable as I found it

  • Madeline Morse

    After reading the review, as well as reflecting on the discussion in class, the most profound part of the film Tabu to me would be the amount of themes able to be portrayed in one film yet seamlessly fit together. I think Gomez was successful in his execution of reminding us that age and death are inevitable. We must come to terms with time, since it is something we all will face. If we are lucky enough, we will be able to grow old and have the opportunity to reflect as Ventura does. Or we could, as Aurora character, end up on our deathbed with regrets. Additionally, as the film takes us from an elderly Aurora and Ventura, to young, we then get to envision their love and love lost through another well-delivered theme. As Gomez depicted, and as we discussed the love that Aurora and Ventura felt for each other was profound but destructive from the beginning. The love we witnessed not only left Aurora and Ventura heartbroken, but also leaving Ventura’s best friend dead at the hands of Aurora. Lastly, an underlying but perhaps the most important theme of colonialism and racism was presented in such a way that could best be described as Aurora did “if only you knew the blood on my hands”. I think Gomez uses particular film shots of such as the workers in the field on Aurora’s husband’s tea farm, Aurora firing the cook due to his ability to predict she would meet an unhappy end, as well as her treatment of Santa in her belief she was ultimately a witch, to have an underlying display of ethnocentrism, that is still very much prevalent today. He was able to use a theme, which was such a taboo subject, in his work of Tabu.

  • Mo Siddiqui

    Watching Tabu and reading this review, the one thing I can say is that Gomez really does get to the audience emotionally. Whether it was the way he used a black and white picture for the audience to really focus to the movie, the way he showed love and tragedy or the way he shows how life and death can be for us, either one of does gets the audience and makes us think about it. The one interesting thing Gomez does is the way he shows life and death, to me that’s big because this film shows that a person can have a happy life, but die sad later on. For example, Aurora loved Ventura and was really happy with, however at the end she died and couldn’t see him again and that just shows the sad part of life. The way the film is split into two halves may catch some off guard as to what’s happening, but Gomez brilliantly brings the halves together and makes it clear as to what is happening.

  • mariam saleem memon

    06/30/2019 After reading the review, I would say that I really like the movie it was like the first black and white movie. which I really enjoyed and plus there is no dialogue like we have to be fully focus on the movie. the director Miguel Gomes has made this movie has showed a lot of scenes which are so unique from other movies this movie is on tragic romance opening of the movie is really interpretation. it shows us unique two parts the first is the Paradise Lost and the second is the Paradise .The fist half was not that much interesting in my opinion. the second half I really enjoyed the movie it starts the love story between the Aurora and Ventura. the structure of the film is really interesting. this film shows us that time and memory are very important in this film basically the film shows an old lady whose memory is failing servant who is black Santa she thinks it is perhaps an evil to investigate the story about the past. on the other Pilar the lady who is playing an important role in finding the past and helping Aurora. the way film is shown is very impressive showing two different parts differently. very interesting it creates a curiosity. of knowing what’s gonna happen next. I was really sad when Aurora and Ventura cannot be together forever like they love each other so much. and the she died like the film is about old age and death integrates the concept of age.one character that unites the 2 parts Aurora she is suffering from dimension it has different Aesthetic the film is very visually poetic. there are times where we hear her reading letters. colonialism and Racism is also shown in the film. in my opinion this film is about love. relationship a woman who was living in country was profiting from her husband. the sound I would say put together the sounds are chemical. no was we can remember anything as no dialogues. its basically showing us the past and present. how old she was but still she was in love with him. in the end I would love never dies and if its so pure and true it never does. Ventura the love of Aurora was so bold like he was in love with a married women and still was so happy and crazy about her and I felt so bad when he was heartbroken but still he was so much in loved with her and was ready to do anything for her just to make her happy true love.

  • John

    Every character in the movie Tabu is chasing after love an or memory. I think the crocodile is a metaphor for memories that the hunter is chasing as well as Aurora. Aurora keeps losing the crocodile and chases after it much like her memory in the first half of the movie. As pointed out in the review by using 16 mm film in the second half of the film and not letting us hear what they are saying the film is showing us the perspective of characters grasping for memories and not being able to get a hold on them completely I also think unreciprocated love is another common theme in Tabu. Pilar cares for Mya who does not return her feelings, Aurora does not return her husbands love and even though Aurora and Ventura are in love they are not able to love each other. In the beginning of the movie when they describe the hunter as an intrepid explorer and he is just standing there while the African people around him are doing all the work I think this parallels the rest of the movie as we follow our main characters living in this fantasy world while the African people in the background are constantly working and on the verge of a war for their freedom and their lives.
    .

  • Jessica Radut

    After watching and film Tabu and reading this review, I agree 100 percent with the idea that “Gomes reminds us that we should not ultimately be using box-office receipts to gauge the state of the art, but rather the creativity and originality of the films themselves.” This film, being shot in black and white definitely caught my attention to the details throughout the film. The lighting that played on the walls, the shadows, sweat, and tears on each character’s face, made it feel realistic, and also dreamy. This love affair is dramatic and heartbreaking. Aurora at an old age, though she is going through Dementia, still recalls moments throughout her life and the loss of her love as well as the blood that was lost because of her actions. Moments throughout our live can never be forgotten, even in our old age, and this film depicts that so wonderfully. Though this film is so dramatic, it is amazing how Gomez directed this film and even though it seems like it was such a long time ago (because it is shot in black and white) it’s still the same emotions we face today. Love, heartbreak, and death. This is something we all face, at one point in our lives.

  • Ana J Montes

    The theme of “the inability of escaping one’s own heart” in the movie is prominent. When Ventura goes away for three months to get away from Aurora to let their affair die it still continues once he comes back to Mount Tabu. Later after the birth of Aurora’s child he goes away not seeing her for ten years, once hearing the news her husband died he comes back to see if they can get back together. Aurora decides not to continue, instead she lives her own life never contacting him until on her death bed when she requests Pilar to find Ventura. We see Ventura moved on as well by having his own family, however he doesn’t hesitate to go see Aurora. Aurora and Ventura never truly moved on from yearning one another, in the end Aurora still wanted to see him.
    When Paradise is being shown we are told what is happening by Ventura narrating or when Aurora is reading her letters. I believe Paradise is a mix Venturas recollection of the past by narration and a visualization of what Pilar thinks is going on. There are moments of the movie where Ventura is talking about Aurora when he hasn’t meet her yet, so how does he know what she is doing. Having none of the people talk during Paradise shows us that Ventura doesn’t remember what everyone said which is true when your memory is so back, heck trying to remember what everyone said yesterday is a challenge. Being able to see Aurora as an old woman first is a great move because then we are curious to know what her life was before she began losing her mind. Why does she have her current views, what does she mean by blood on her hands, and alligators in the pool!

  • Graeme McCrory

    Tobu’s most striking element to me was the its two parts structure of Paradise Lost and Paradise. Reading this review after having watched the movie I was very surprised to hear that the two parts had nearly equal run time. While the first part is clearly important, it to me as more of an introduction to the characters in later life to be used for juxtaposition as the main meat of the story took place in the past. I say this in part because to me the second half of the movie felt like it had a greater presence.
    With that said I really enjoyed the dreamlike feel that the second half has that really cements it as a memory of events longs past. In particular I like that any questions of who’s perspective we see the memories from can be further brought into question as both Aurora and Ventura’s mental state are deteriorating in the present day, leading to the possibility that the entire second half is told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Regardless I think the narration over effectively silent film makes for a beautiful and enjoyable dreamlike viewing experience.

  • Nancy Patel

    After watching the film and reading the blog, what stands out to me form the blog was the idea of the time gap referring to characters fading memories. Another thing that emerges to me, is that the way the film is shot. One of the unique parts of the film was that it was shot in two parts. I fully agree with the fact that “each half a distinctive look illustrating the idea that the present is more “realistic” than the foggy and dreamlike “past”.” What makes the first part of the film seems to be realistic is the fact that each day is shot and also the fact that it is shot in “high-contrast 35mm film”. The quasi-silent movie and fogginess in the second part of the film make it seem more like a dream. Both parts are essential to one another, and both need each other in order for the film to work. The film does a really nice job making the audience feel sympathetic towards one of the main character Aurora. The first part of the film captures the abnormal behavior of Aurora and the loneliness she feels, even with having the maid to live with. The audience feels sympathetic towards her form watching what the way she lives her life, and also the fact that her daughter doesn’t seem to care about her. The ending of the second part makes it emotional because of the heartbreaking scene between Aurora and Ventura. The film brilliantly captures the pain of someone living without love.

  • Walter Martos Cram

    There’s one thing I’m slightly confused about after reading this review. When talking about the lady at the beginning of the movie who tells the explorer that he can’t escape from his heart, I don’t remember there being any mention of the relationship between the woman and the explorer, so how do we know that it’s the explorer’s deceased wife?
    I agree with the statement about the way time is presented in the movie, on how in the contemporary part (paradise lost) time is more focused and precise while in the flashbacks (paradise) time is more loose, mentioning months instead of specific dates, showing the lack of clarity within the memories. The review mentioned the importance of how the movie was structured, but I also wanted to add that the structure also provided clarity to certain parts of the movie that happened in paradise lost that weren’t clear but were then enlightening when seeing paradise.
    I was really impressed by the number of movies referenced in this review and now have a greater understanding and appreciation by the amount of research and effort put to make this movie.

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