Stories are admittedly manufactured falsehoods. Yet a good storyteller can carefully craft these falsehoods to lead the listener or some other story recipient to a place of recognizable emotional truth. But what happens when the listener prefers to reside in falsehood’s lands rather than live with an awkward truth? Portuguese director Miguel Gomes raises these questions with his acclaimed film “Tabu.” Kino Lorber’s new DVD/Blu-Ray home release of Gomes’ movie finally makes it accessible to Bay Area audiences of art film.
“Tabu”’s first half begins in present-day Portugal. Pilar, a religious middle-aged woman who works for a human rights organization, is neighbor and sole friend of the elderly Aurora. The old woman fluctuates between rationality and slips into a mental netherworld where present dreams and old fears of supernatural curses co-exist. Awareness of Aurora’s social isolation powers Pilar’s pity for her neighbor. Aurora’s only child, a daughter, rarely has time for her mother. Santa, Aurora’s live-in servant, stoically endures her charge’s mood swings.
The human rights worker’s understanding of Aurora undergoes a profound shift when her neighbor falls seriously ill. The old woman asks Pilar to bring her a man named Gian Luca, someone never before mentioned to either Santa or Pilar. Gian Luca is eventually located, but the tie between the supposedly crazy old man and Aurora is explicated in the film’s second half.
This half of the film turns out to be an extended flashback set fifty years ago. The place is a Portuguese colony in Africa, located in the shadow of Mount Tabu. The younger Aurora turns out to be a beautiful big-game hunter who lives in quiet contentment with her plantation owner husband. Into their lives come aspiring rock star Mario and his friend the handsome Gian Luca. The latter man wants to escape his past as a feckless breaker of women’s hearts and live a normal respectable life. But that goal proves unattainable when an amour fou eventually develops between Gian Luca and Aurora. Against the impending arrival of the Portuguese Colonial War, what disaster will befall Gian Luca and Aurora’s affair?
To appreciate “Tabu,” the viewer must understand a couple of stylistic tricks that the former film critic employs throughout the film. The visual trick is having the entire film shot in a ratio that doesn’t fill the entire screen. Gomes is creating a different effect than the narrowness of cultural vision effect Kelly Reichardt achieved in “Meek’s Cutoff.” The very visible black frame is the director’s way of preventing the viewer from being completely immersed in the worlds of either present day Portugal or its colonial Africa days. For all the familiarity of the present day section of the film, there’s something emotionally sterile about Pilar’s and Aurora’s life. On the other hand, the colonial Africa section has the familiar passions associated with “exotic” locales, illicit love, and impending doom. Yet Gomes is clearly uninterested in having the viewer romanticize the colonial past.
The auditory trick is having the film’s two African sequences be narrated by Gian Luca. The first Africa sequence, which serves as a sort of preface for “Tabu,” is a film about a white explorer in one of that continent’s jungles. Any nobility associated with the traditional role of white explorer acquiring information about lands unknown to the Europeans gets undercut by learning the personal reason behind the explorer’s journey to this jungle. In the extended flashback which is “Tabu”’s second half, while the soundtrack is filled with mostly Gian Luca’s narration, sound effects, and Portuguese renditions of familiar Phil Spector songs (“Be My Baby” can be quickly identified), there is no dialogue from either the white or the black characters. Presenting the story in this manner prevents the viewer from being immersed in the familiar mechanics of the illicit love story. Instead, as the surviving witness to these decades-old events, Gian Luca implicitly has his own veracity come into question.
The truth behind the stories we tell ourselves and others is one of “Tabu”’s repeating themes even in the film’s present-day Portugal section. Pilar’s prospective roommate Maya lies about her identity to avoid staying with the older woman. The human rights worker wants to pretend she likes an artist friend’s painting by hanging it in the living room when she actually feels it’s not his best work.
The biggest untrue story being told in the film is the one not discussed onscreen. It’s the tale of how the lives of the Africans colonized by the Portuguese are somehow magically improved by the white peoples’ presence. The black natives’ voices are never heard challenging this narrative except through the looming presence of a nearby revolutionary army.
“Tabu” references the setting of Mount Tabu, where legends are birthed. The title also obviously refers to the breaking of societal norms caused by Aurora and Gian Luca’s affair. But most importantly, it alludes to the silence regarding questioning the morality of Portuguese colonialism.
Crocodiles provide a visual metaphor for “Tabu”’s many themes. The explorer who gets killed by one such beast in the film’s preface dies from not dealing with his emotional trauma. The constant escapes of Aurora’s pet crocodile symbolize the inability to permanently contain the secret of Aurora’s affair. Finally, the film’s final shot of the crocodile makes the beast a visual metaphor for the longevity of Gian Luca’s story.
“Tabu” should not be dismissed as an exercise in intellectual filmmaking. Aurora as an old woman keeps the viewer guessing whether she’s rational or is slowly going insane. The Portuguese versions of Phil Spector songs feel fresh and startling. Even without a word of actual dialogue, the sexual tension between the younger Aurora and Gian Luca feel palpable.
“Tabu” may lack America’s commercial virtues of providing easily digestible and forgettable entertainment. But Gomes’s film artfully balances its oppositions of silence and sound, aridity and passion, and entertainment and art to create an intriguing inversion of a familiar melodramatic scenario.
(“Tabu” is now out on DVD/Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.)