Starring: Teersa Madruga, Laura Sokveral, Ana Moreira
You may like this if you liked: Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009), The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
Tabu tells two stories at different parts in the life of one woman, called Aurora. The first half set in present day Lisbon tells the story of an elderly and dying Aurora living a life of regret while suffering from senility. She asks her concerned and kindly neighbour called Pilar to track down a mysterious man from her past. After Aurora’s funeral the man then reveals some of the things that her neighbour thought Aurora said simply as the random mumblings of a senile old woman actually refer to a different time in her life. So the second half of the film begins as the man tells the story of when Aurora lived in colonial Africa at the foot of Mount Tabu, and he reveals the tragic events that took place when he moved out there that were to forever shape the rest of their lives.
I watched Tabu knowing very little about it and found the film a real treat to watch, but however I will try to avoid giving too much away as this is one of those films that are best to watch not knowing too much. The whole viewing experience is very rewarding, not just emotionally, but also in that your required patience is amply rewarded. Though the entire film is shot in black and white, the two different stories are told in differing stylistic ways, making Tabu a very fitting tribute to cinema itself.
The first half, firstly being set in the present day, has almost a surrealist feel to it, with some apparently random moments and new characters being introduced suddenly. This does require your attention and anyone could be forgiven for wondering where the hell the film is going. However, as the first half reaches its inevitable conclusion and we enter the second half, this is where Tabu becomes an engaging and emotionally rewarding film. Many of the supposedly random moments of the first half now fit in perfectly as we are revealed what happened when Aurora was a young woman living in Africa.
The second half is a rather simple story of an illicit love affair that could never be but is told in an emotionally powerful way, enhanced by the framed narrative structure and deeply mournful narration of who we discover to be the man she loved. The power of the voice over is enhanced by the completely different stylistic approach of the second half, the only dialogue throughout is the voice over of Aurora’s lover and the whole second half is shot in 16mm. The poignant reflections of the narrator can easily be interpreted as also being the director’s and perhaps us the viewer’s feelings towards silent era cinema of a bygone age. This stylistic approach is very much purposeful, all other diagetic sounds can be heard, and the characters are physically talking to each other. The emotional power is only enhanced by the fact all we can hear is the non-diagetic narration and having to otherwise rely on expressions and body language of the characters. Part two feels like a two sided approach to love of the past; a past loved one and a love of cinema of the past.
Despite the main subject of the story at hand, Tabu is not a completely bleak film, the playful use of different cinematic techniques and music are a joy to watch and the catharsis of the ending leaves a feeling of poignancy but not abject misery. There are however elements to Tabu that may frustrate. It feels that the protagonist of part one is Pilar, Aurora’s neighbour and her story does feel frustratingly unfinished as we see elements of her daily life that make us truly care about her as these moments have literally nothing to do with Aurora. However, this is the story of Aurora through the eyes of those around her and in that case the stylistic approach of part one in retrospect fits with that of part two. The surrealist and playful approach to narrative structure in part one may seem pretentious and potentially alienating to some, but after watching the entire film I could only look back at it with positive feelings.
Original and unique, Tabu is a thoroughly engrossing and emotionally rewarding story that serves not only as a tribute to human love, but also love of the history of cinema. The first thirty minutes or so may feel hard work at first, but what the remainder of the film has to offer more than amply rewards the viewer’s patience.