Following the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Portugal's biggest catastrophe may have been the loss of ill-gotten wealth from its African colonies. Mozambique, Angola, and other nations finally gained independence in 1974—late compared to the rest of Europe. As a result, Portuguese artists are still chewing over their colonial legacy long after Orwell and Malraux had their say. Filmmaker Miguel Gomes takes an indirect look back to an unnamed African colony in Tabu, but he has more than history on his mind. Tabu is a movie-infused expedition into the jungles of memory and regret, a heartfelt pastiche, and a narrative thicket in need of a machete.
Runs Fri., Feb. 8-Thurs., Feb. 21 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 118 minutes.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a kindly, semi-retired Lisbon woman who hosts foreign-exchange students and takes an interest in her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). A gambler and widow whose grown daughter is never seen, Aurora seems intent on squandering the last of her money. Her other hobby is quarreling with her maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), a native of Cape Verde, one of Portugal's former colonies. In one sense, Aurora's faded, Havishamesque grandeur symbolizes the nation's past; in another, she's just a convenient storytelling device that leads to Tabu's second chapter, set some 50 years prior in Africa. There we meet young Aurora (Ana Moreira), a married woman who takes a lover.
Both sections of Tabu are shot in black and white, which makes the whole enterprise self-consciously "historical." The African love story is narrated, but its characters aren't heard; it's something like a silent movie with a modern soundtrack added. This story-within-a-story is initiated when Pilar and Santa set out to find Aurora's old lover, Ventura, played by Carloto Cotta in the African section. That romance is nothing like The English Patient's passion; nor is Gomes interested in a revenge-of-the-colonized drama like, say, Michael Haneke's Caché. When Aurora's husband gifts her with a baby crocodile, the metaphor is clear, but we never see it grow to devour its master.
Rather than portending disaster, there's just a slow, simmering melancholy to this long-past romance and Pilar's dull daily doings. (Maybe it's she who symbolizes frustrated modern Portugal.) Tabu is like Guy Maddin without the hysteria or Almodóvar without the fun. There are plangent period details, like a bubblegum pop band playing beside a fetid swimming pool, and the cinematography by Rui Poças is often quite lovely. Still, Gomes adds so many layers to his cake that I would've preferred a half-serving.