As genre niches go, a black and white Portuguese film set mainly in Africa is possibly as niche as you could get, but this is the set up to a very individual film. In a period where we are being swamped with Hollywood remakes Tabu stands as a breath of fresh air, you will find no special effects here, no explosions and no wise cracking sidekicks. What you will find is a film that is a perfect example of modern European cinema – but be warned, it is a very European film.
Set around the relationship of Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and her elderly and whimsical neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), the film is low key and a tad depressing at first as we see Aurora go penniless and senile. However, Tabu completely changes after the first third and switches from drizzly, contemporary Lisbon to sun-baked, colonial Africa in the ’60s, an abrupt and game changing turn for the film. From here the story switches to one of romance, secrecy and guilt based on the characters of young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and rebellious adventurer Ventura (Carloto Cotta). The plot is complex and overlapping; whilst at the beginning Tabu may seem bemusing, as we gradually learn of the context of the story, the film begins to come together (although much is still left up to the viewer’s own imagination). What is striking is the differences between the first and second half; when the story is set in Lisbon much of it is conversational and the main character we follow is Pilar, yet after the film switches to Africa, nothing more is heard from her. Not only this but the tone changes, ambient noise and music is emphasized whilst much else remains silent, in fact the only time you hear any of the characters talk is via song or letters. Yet, there is no loss of understanding, the film’s superb performances allow for conversations to be understood purely via body language, and it is these little touches that make Tabu so refreshing.
Tabu is in many ways subtle in its construction; stories are partially introduced earlier in a way as to make the audience doubt them until much later in the film, comedy is restrained yet heart-warming and though not much is said about the characters, we nonetheless begin to understand their thoughts and motives. I know I stressed it at the beginning but this film is very European and should be approached as such, Tabu is split into titled chapters, focuses on fixed drawn out shots and on conversation or implied conversation; the pace is slow and the action minimal but the narrative more than makes up for it. I say this not to scare you off; I think this film is superb, but just to let you know what you’re in for. Gomes has produced a film that will undoubtedly not garner the views or coverage it deserves, but stands as a fine example of what European cinema can be; if you can see Tabu I would highly encourage you get out there before its gone.