TABU, the new film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, 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 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 order of these sequences; paradise lost is modern day Portugal, with an elderly but spunky Aurora, and paradise is the romantic, elegant wilderness of life in Portugal’s African colonies, where Aurora was married and became pregnant while also engaging in a bittersweet tryst with another man. But Gomes’s film is ultimately so deeply concerned with exploring the tough-to-grasp ramifications of Portuguese colonialism that those hoping to find something more universal in its narrative will likely be disappointed.
Among the other recent entries of this breed of hard-art foreign film, 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 Weerasathekul will also find many corollaries, not only with the film’s two-part structure, but also its heavy blanket of mysticism.
Any frustration with Gomes's modest, plodding narrative is partially forgiven by TABU's second part, shot in black and white without dialogue and set on the African plantation of Aurora's youth, which brings the film’s slow-burn to its climax and releases a brief emotional detonation. But in the end, the journey between these two worlds 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 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 a highly intellectual, lofty method of filmmaking. There’s plenty of lovely visual poetry on display, particularly in the gorgeous African vistas on display in the much more lovable second part. Music is also used to wonderful 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 her tortured, pampered youth as a stand-in for Portugal’s historical woes. But one can’t help but have the feeling that, in more ways than one, you’re only really responding to half of what’s there.