Tabu is a uniquely mysterious study
Starring Teresa Madruga and Laura Soveral. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, October 19, at the Vancity Theatre
Tabu, a quietly stunning third feature for Miguel Gomes, finds the Portuguese writer-director swimming into uncharted waters, sometimes with a crocodile nipping at his heels.
That enigmatically threatening symbol shows up in three settings. The first is a faux-archival silent film illustrating Portugal’s limited run as a colonial power in Africa. The next is during a dream had by the increasingly demented Aurora (Laura Soveral), living in a modern Lisbon apartment with her maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), next to forthright Pilar (Teresa Madruga), facing her own struggles with loneliness.
The maid is a vestige of the old neighbour’s many years in an unnamed African colony, and that place is visited in the playfully handled third location: a reimagined Africa (actually Mozambique) of the early 1960s. Like the rest of the movie, this sequence was shot in deep-focus black-and-white, but it is silent, save for natural sounds and pop songs of the era. (Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby”, sung in Portuguese, is the intriguingly repeated cri de coeur.)
This is where the young, privileged, and quite married Aurora (Ana Moreira) dallied with a visiting hunk (Carloto Cotta) she met at the foot of fictional Mt. Tabu. The recollection is narrated by him, now a stoic senior played by Henrique Espírito Santo, himself a veteran film producer.
Gomes, a former critic who recently turned 40, is a baby by Portugal’s cinematic standards, since the reigning director, Manoel de Oliveira, is still working at 103. The new film borrows its title, and poetic sensibilities, from F. W. Murnau’s Polynesia-set pre-talkie of the same name. Gomes and his cinematographer, Rui Poças, also stick to square-framed 16mm and 35mm stocks, making the movie as much a love letter to fading languages of cinema as it is a uniquely mysterious study of what’s left when power and memory fall away.