All that and a melancholy crocodile.
DIRECTED BY MIGUEL GOMES
The prologue to Tabu features no less than a lovesick crocodile, a restless colonial explorer on an African safari, and a sleepwalking ghost bride—but the real marvel is Pilar (Teresa Madruga), the gentle soul who watches the whole first reel unfold as a lost silent film from a movie theatre in present-day Lisbon. A lonely woman who lives for others’ sad stories, both on screen and off, Pilar is as affable as audience surrogates get. She’s the key to Miguel Gomes’ film, which has the rare distinction of being as beautiful as it is smart.
Tabu is split neatly into two separate parts. The first, which plays out as a dreamy contemporary melodrama in black and white, stays with Pilar over a fateful week in late December, as she cares for her neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman who’s just blown her life savings at a casino, and who has recently taken to muttering about a past life in Africa. Pilar doesn’t think much of her story until she fortuitously meets her neighbour’s former lover Gian Luca, a dashing older man who in the second half of the film tells of Aurora’s past as a huntress and landholder by the titular mountain. Luca narrates their illicit affair in the days leading up to the natives’ insurrection against their colonial overseers.
Gomes brings a light touch to this complex second part, which is acted out as a silent film, apart from Gian Luca’s lyrical voiceover. Otherwise, it has ambient noise and a terrific soundtrack of Phil Spector songs from Gian Luca’s Portuguese cover band. Gomes is just as deft at handling thick colonial politics, sketching Aurora and Gian Luca’s brazen love story as a blip on the map of a continent that (rightfully) couldn’t care less about their outcome. What makes Tabu such a singularly lovely and moving experience, though, isn’t its technical mastery or its irony but its bold emotional streak. If the second cover of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” doesn’t get you, nothing will.