Film Review: Tabu

Director Miguel Gomes’s charming groundbreaker for art-house audiences plays with narrative conventions.

Another charmingly eccentric exercise in meta-fiction from Portugal’s offbeat new directing star Miguel Gomes, Tabu chooses to explore its characters without following narrative rules, or rather, by reshuffling hackneyed tropes from film and novels to turn them into strange, modern entertainment. Gomes’ freedom to play with familiar bits and pieces will once again earn the film critic-turned-director (Our Beloved Month of August) wide critical praise, which could push this oddity into more adventurous art-house circles not afraid of its black-and-white cinematography and old-fashioned square format.

And yet, fun as it generally is, there is something that doesn’t quite click in Tabu, the two-part study of a self-centered woman named Aurora. The tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions of ball-eyed crocodiles and Phil Spector’s pre-Beatles “wall of sound” are simply hard-pressed to illuminate the messy lives of real people. Time and again the film seems to be reaching up to some Heart of Darkness kind of mega-truth, or at least psychological depth, only to fall back into the safer waters of parody. In the end, what we really know about the characters isn’t more than a conventional movie could offer, minus the latter’s emotional payoff.

Still, certain audiences will find it a welcome attempt to break new ground. The structure itself is amusingly unbalanced. In a short, humorous prologue, the director narrates the tragic end of a mustachioed African explorer on the black continent, who throws himself to the crocodiles over a lost love while the “natives” look on.

Enter the story of Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a warm-hearted Catholic woman and social activist, who worries about the declining health of her elderly and increasingly dotty neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). Having lost all her money on the slot machines, Aurora blames her Cape Verde maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso) for casting “spells” on her. Like the good Pilar, the viewer is led to judge harshly the behavior of Aurora’s grown daughter, who pays for the maid but avoids visiting Mom. Though spiced with weird humor, generally in the form of absurd stories told by one of the characters (Aurora’s dream of hairy monkeys stands out), this section of the film tends to drag on, until a new narrator is located in a retirement home. Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), a white-haired old gent of Italian origin, takes over the storytelling for the final hour and the dark secrets of Aurora’s past are at last illuminated.

It’s a relief when the scenery switches to back to Africa. Just as in the prologue, another love story is about to unfold, a tragic triangle involving the lovely Portuguese heiress Aurora (Ana Moreira), her recent Gatsby-like husband (Ivo Müller) and a seductive adventurer with a Clark Gable mustache named Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Surrounded by servants who work in the fields on the family farm and accompany her on big-game hunts, Aurora seems to have everything. When Ventura arrives with his friend Mario, who studied for the priesthood and now runs a successful pop band, both Aurora and Gian Luca lose their heads, with dire consequences.

Gomes’ forte is playing with familiar images, characters and ideas to show their hollowness. One of these is certainly the idea of the great white hunter in the hostile African continent, playing with his guns, or the servants who are taken for granted until they rise up in rebellion and, as the film tosses off, "socialism puts an end to the caliphate." All that is left hovering in the background, without needing to come to the fore to be a significant part of the film.

The dangerous-eyed Moreira, seen in The Portuguese Nun, has a late-night movie look that pins young Aurora’s character down; as her elderly self, Soveral is funnier and more human. Young Cotta slips in an extra moral dimension as the carefree lover who discovers he has a conscience. Rui Poças does a great deal with the penitential square, black-and-white screen, an unintuitive stylistic choice that holds in the image and contains the emotions while forcing a new perspective on the viewer.
The Hollywood Reporter