Originally posted on Sept. 15, 2012
TABU (Portugal, 2012)
The gist: A renewed look beyond the veneer of this deceptively nostalgic romance set against a Portuguese colony in Africa throws into sharp relief the horrors to which those who benefited from a grand scheme of exploitation are utterly oblivious.
Except the opening film-within-a-film about a man on an expedition to 19th-century Africa, who flees the spectre of his dead wife and drowns himself to a pond full of crocodiles, Miguel Gomes’s black-and-white Tabu is told in two parts: one shot in 35mm of an uneventful present in Lisbon, and the other in 16mm dedicated to the memories of a paradise that once existed in Africa, at the foot of Mount Tabu. Centering on good-natured woman Pilar, her old neighbor Ms. Aurora and her maid Santa, Part 1 presents a succession of everyday affairs and interactions, mostly in static medium closeup. It consists largely of stares, indifferent or attentive, exchanged words that sound perfunctory, and the periodic knocks in between. While the unbearable ordinariness seems to occasionally steer her into the cinema for the brief purging of emotions, and while any sort of passionate love keeps eluding her, Pilar is seen involved in myriad good deeds and activism. Indeed, Part 1 provides sufficient information that Pilar really is a good person—but probably too good to fathom the larger-than-life past of Aurora, now senile and gambling away all she’s got, let alone the “horrors [Aurora is] ashamed to confess.”
With Aurora’s funeral comes Part 2, her mysterious past recounted in flashback by her old flame Ventura. All but black-and-white silent, Part 2 is tonally in contrast to its predecessor by indulging in the long shots of an expansive, mountainous landscape in Africa and varying, dynamic camera moves, which highlight the dramatic quality of Aurora’s colonial youth. Feeling trapped in the conventionality of an affluent, happily married life, a young Aurora manages to satiate her craving for escapism through hunting excursions accompanied by her servants. But when pregnancy hits her, effectively ending her freedom, she seeks an outlet for frustration and starts an affair with Ventura. Here, the sporadic use of sound, like Sixties music and gunshots, accentuates by turns the exuberance of their love and its tragic ephemerality.
As Part 2 winds down, it unveils the horrible crimes that Aurora mentions on her deathbed in Part 1, though, not unexpectedly, they are unrelated to anything else but her own affair. The young Aurora isn’t just blinded by love and momentarily out of touch with reality, but utterly oblivious to her surroundings, the complexities of the real world out there. Put differently, a symptomatic reading of Part 2 beyond its veneer of a young love gone awry would throw into sharp relief the banality of a grand scheme of exploitation that the privileged few take for granted, and their complete unawareness of the sociopolitical milieu of their time. So when you recall Aurora speaking of the “horrors,” the word now sounds more like a compressed expression of the experience Aurora and Venture shared a half century ago with those out of frame or mostly backgrounded during the second-half love story.