Some films require patience from the audience before they reveal their treasures, and Tabu, the ambitious new effort from Miguel Gomes, is one such film. Considering how head-over-heels I was for the picture by the time the credits rolled, it feels strange to recall how long it took me to warm up to it, and how it almost lost me before a dramatic gear change won my heart. Like FW Murnau and Robert Flaherty's 1931 film, Tabu exists in two parts entitled "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost," although Gomes flips that order, with paradise only being evoked through the recollections of a character who appears towards the end of the first segment. Perhaps a place described as paradise can only exist in a memory or a dream, the film seems to suggest. Either way, Tabu eventually becomes a dream from which you don't want to wake up.
Tabu opens in the past, with a 19th century prologue telling the legend of an explorer in a Portuguese colony in Africa, who is haunted by the ghost of his late wife. When she appears to him deep in the jungle, he is so overcome with emotion he sacrifices himself in a crocodile-infested river. What this opening diversion has to do with the main story that follows is unclear, but its melancholy romanticism and ambiguities set the tone neatly. When the first part of the film "Paradise Lost" begins, it immediately feels oddly prosaic in comparison, as it focuses on the lonely life of a middle-aged spinster in contemporary Lisbon.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga) may live alone, but much of her time is taken up by her neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman slowly sliding towards senility and death. This increasingly erratic character has begun accusing her African maid of witchcraft and started making cryptic comments about crocodiles and names from her unknown past. Gomes takes his time revealing what all of this means and where exactly his film is going, and while there are flashes of humour to leaven the sombre tone (notably in Pilar's awkward relationship with a male admirer), the film feels oddly static for much of this section. The actors' delivery of their dialogue is flat and emotionless, and as aesthetically pleasing as the black-and-white 35mm cinematography is, Tabu feels oddly directionless as it reaches its midpoint. The film finally pivots on the arrival of Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), an old acquaintance of Aurora's whom Pilar is asked to locate. After Aurora passes away, Ventura sits down with Pilar and begins to recount his story, which takes place in the early 1960s.
The cut that Gomes uses to shift us between the two eras is a breathtaking filmmaking coup, and one that instantly grabbed me, just as my attention was starting to wane. The "Paradise" portion of Tabu marks a total stylistic change of direction too, with the story being told entirely through Ventura's voiceover, and the scenes we see containing no spoken dialogue, only ambient sounds. Gomes utilises a different visual approach too, swapping the lush 35mm for grainy but vivid 16mm, to better recreate the sense of a fondly remembered past. This long flashback depicts the illicit romance between the young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora (Ana Moreira), the wife of a colonist, which took place in the shadow of Mount Tabu. While the first portion of the film felt a little distant and monotone, this latter half is driven by a burning, tempestuous passion.
That passion is expressed through the actors' eyes and body language, and they are extraordinarily effective at drawing us into this story. In particular, the beautiful Moreira brings a wonderful range of emotions to her role as a pregnant woman willing to risk her comfortable life for this one shot at true love. Without dialogue, Gomes' visual storytelling is paramount, and his use of shadows and light makes the film a glorious aesthetic success; luminous and imaginative, it creates images that linger in your memory long after the film has finished. In fact, the whole of Tabu somehow coalesces and grows in hindsight, resurfacing in my thoughts days later and still managing to tug at my emotions when it did so. An appropriate effect, perhaps, for a film so concerned with the act of remembering.
Whether Tabu's ultimate success is enough to mitigate the problematic first half of the film is another question entirely, and for many viewers I'm sure it won't be. The more I think about the effect the film's second half had on me, the more I wish it had hooked me in sooner, and that I hadn't spent so much of its opening hour wondering if I was missing something crucial that would somehow allow me to get on Gomes' wavelength. Nevertheless, it's worth taking a chance on Tabu. At its best, the film offers a visual and aural experience that comes with a significant emotional kick, and too few films achieve such a feat these days for us to dismiss this one on account of its weaker patches. Tabu may try your patience, but it does offer ample rewards for the patient and curious viewer.