Memories of the past do not always tell us about people and events as they actually were, but often are a mixture of truth and illusion. Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' third feature Tabu takes us on a nostalgic journey that begins in the modern city of today's Lisbon and travels to colonial Africa fifty years ago to attempt to recapture in memory the paradise that was lost. Shot in black and white by cinematographer Rui Poças and using 16mm film rather than color to establish a time differential, the film reminds us of the romantic movies Hollywood used to make in the 1930s and owes a debt to F.W. Murnau, whose title was borrowed from his 1931 South Seas adventure.
Divided into two parts, Tabu's first section depicts an elderly woman, a dreamer beset by remorse and regret, who is fast losing her grip on reality. The second is the story of an obsessive love set in the shadows of a fictional Mount Tabu in Africa. It is a moving story of love and loss, silent except for a voice-over narration, the ambient sounds of nature, and the music of Phil Spector and others from the sixties. The film begins with an enigmatic prologue in which an explorer, distraught over the death of his wife, decides to end his life by swimming with the crocodiles, an allegorical reptile used as a recurring motif throughout the film. The scene then shifts to Lisbon where Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly victim of an unknown troubled past, is now close to the end of her days.
She lives with Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), her maid from Cape Verde who fills her own days by reading Robinson Crusoe at the local book club. Though Santa caters to her every need, Aurora is convinced that she is a sorceress who is putting a spell on her. Having lost her money at the casinos, Aurora looks to her estranged daughter living in Canada and her neighbor, Pilar ((Teresa Madruga), a staunch Catholic and social activist for financial help but little is forthcoming. When Aurora is taken to the hospital, she talks about the only time she truly felt loved, the time when she met a playboy and adventurer on her husband's colonial estate back in the sixties.
Aurora asks Pilar to find her friend, Gian Luca (Henrique Espírito Santo) and have him come to her one last time, but she dies before he is found in a nursing home. Using material from diaries and private letters to establish its credibility, Ventura tells his story to Pilar and Santa over a cup of coffee. It is a personal engaging and deeply felt and is related with poetic insight, told from his point of view. Shifting back fifty years, we see a young Aurora (Ana Moreira), an heiress who has inherited a farm from her father. Surrounded by doting black servants, she is married to a wealthy merchant (Ivo Muller) and pregnant with his child, but her life will change forever when she meets Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a member of her husband's friend Mario's (Manuel Mesquita) rock band and begins a stormy, furtive love affair that will begin and end many times but in the emotions it engenders, it will last a lifetime.
Their story is dramatized in the context of a native rebellion, the beginning of the decolonization process that began in 1961 and continued for more than ten years. Though Gomes glosses over these events and shunts them to the background, the film's depiction of the white adventurers tells us all we need to know about the colonial mentality. At its core, however, Tabu is not a film about history or even about big ideas but an old-fashioned love story that, while perhaps never quite penetrating below the surface of its characters, captivates with its mood, physical beauty, and sense of dream-like mystery. It is a wistful and haunting film about the day when all that is left are memories, dreams, and an overriding longing for an imagined paradise. To Gian Carlo, as to all, in Proust's words, "It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for."
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