Tabu – Movie Review

A dreadfully slow screenplay in the second half undercuts the interesting handling of black and white exposition.

Miguel Gomes’ black and white paean to love screened last November at the New York Film Festival. The film is artfully conceived and skillfully executed. Unfortunately it is flat and, at least in the second part, almost completely devoid of a significant plot.

Set in traditional Portugal, the film is divided into two distinctly different parts. Both parts are shot in fascinating black and white, with the first part taking place in the present and the second part reaching back about 40 years.

The first part is in 35 mm and the second part is in 16 mm. The 16 mm format gives the decades-old recollections a wonderful, atmospheric graininess. The film texture adds a lot to the second part, which is also entirely silent except for the omniscient narrative voice.

The first part of the film, “Lost Paradise,” features the older Aurora (Laura Soveral), a women beset with elderly unsteadiness and uncontrollable obsessions. Aurora spends her entire life running away from herself and trying “get lucky” at the gambling casino, with predictably disastrous results. The shots are claustrophobic interior shots, with the scenes struggling break out of the shadows as Aurora struggles to break free of her memories.

Aurora has found a steadfast anchor in her neighbor Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a perpetual do-gooder who is the very embodiment of compulsive altruism. The two compulsive-dependent natures are balanced by the worldly and level headed Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), the maid of the house.

Santa is from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a nation with a history of colonization underlain with traditions of piracy and voodoo. While the two upper-middle class Portuguese women fret and scheme, Santa read Robinson Crusoe and takes adult literacy classes.

As Aurora is on her death bed, she makes a curious final request. She begs to see a man, Gian Luca Ventura, for one last time before she dies. She has never mentioned this strange man before, although there seems to be some connection between him and her erratic and agonized behavior. Hence, Part II, Paradise, begins.

Part II is about a happier time in colonial Africa where the young and beautiful Aurora (Ana Moreira) shares a relaxed and luxurious life style as the first lady of a successful tea plantation. Her husband (played by Ivo Müller) is a well-meaning, colonial nincompoop who spends his time strutting around the farm and training others to shoot guns in case of a rebellion.

Aurora does not need to be taught, she is a crack shot and a fearless warrior, at least on the surface. The shots are mostly outdoors, in the bright sun and natural fertility and potency of youth and the African jungle. A love triangle ensues and Mario (Manuel Mesquita) and young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) are caught up in a whirlwind of silent grimacing with the manly Aurora and her bumbling husband.

The ending (in fact, the entire last half) of the film is simply disappointing. The plot is tiresome and un-inspired, in spite of the creativity shown in the photography. More so for the fact that the beginning showed such great promise. It starts out with a very funny set-up about a Charlie Chaplin like Great White Hunter who sacrifices himself to a crocodile.

Crocodiles, resonating with Santa’s voodoo and revenging the wrongs of white empire building, appear throughout the film, in diminishing and less interesting contexts as time goes on. The manly female hunter is contrasted with effeminate males and with the ultra-masculine Santa in Part I. Perhaps, too much complexity for Director Gomes.

The film would have done better to take more notice of silent film wizard Guy Madden, although even his films usually survive only by benefit of his unique, sometimes live, sound track performances.

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Directed by: Miguel Gomes
Written by: Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo
Starring: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral and Ana Moreira
Release Date; December 26, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 118 minutes
Country: Portugal / Germany / Brazil / France
Language: Portuguese with English subtitles
Color: Black and White