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Giovanni Marchini Camia: When risks pay off

After an uninspiring start to the Competition's sixth day, Giovanni finds exactly the type of refreshing experience he expects from the Berlinale in the Portuguese curiosity Tabu.

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Today’s Competition started on a pretty conventional note, with Hans-Christian Schmid’s Was Bleibt (Home for the Weekend) treading overly familiar territory – a bourgeois family convenes at the parents’ country home and skeletons come out of the closet, resulting in painful truths being exchanged – without adding anything particularly interesting, be it thematically or cinematically.

Thankfully, then came Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, which, however one might feel about it – and there was a steady stream of walkouts – is anything but conventional.

From the outset, it’s clear you’re in for something different. The film opens on a prologue of deadpan slapstick (not an oxymoron, as it turns out) shot in 16mm monochrome and playfully mimicking the look and feel of 1920s film. I’m still not 100% sure how this tale of a ‘melancholic explorer’ who wanders Africa looking gloomy until he feeds himself to a crocodile relates to the rest of the film; what I am sure of is that it was a pure delight.

The rest of the film is split up in two chapters: ‘A Lost Paradise’ and ‘Paradise’. The first centres on Pilaf (Teresa Madruga), a kind-hearted middle-aged woman who lives next door to Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly, slightly senile lady taken care of by her black carer Santa (Isabel Cardoso), whom she accuses of practicing witchcraft on her. When Aurora is hospitalized, on her deathbed she demands to see an old friend no one knew existed. Pilaf seeks the man out, but by the time she brings him, it’s already too late.

Aurora’s death initiates the second chapter, which involves the mysterious friend, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo – what a name!), telling Pilaf and Stella his shared history with Aurora in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa, where the two had a passionate affair that ended in tragedy.

Tabu’s main appeal does not lie in its plot – in fact, it has a tendency to drag, making for long stretches that try the viewer’s patience and were probably the main cause of the many walkouts – but in its whimsically experimental style.

The whole second part is an innovative take on silent film, with the diegetic sounds left in, but all dialogue muted. Gian Luca’s off-screen voice narrates throughout, describing the action we see, thus confusing the distinction between his own memory and the women’s envisaging of it.

There are many inspired comical moments. By providing elements of random and absurd surrealism, bits of quirky dialogue (in the first chapter only), and setting up offbeat visual gags, the film is often very funny in a manner reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki’s signature humour.

Overall, Tabu is not without its flaws: the first chapter lacks cohesion and the overall pace of the film often proves infuriating. Still, it is a film that is not afraid to take risks (it even ironically acknowledges that it will split audiences in a brilliant scene at the cinema – pictured above) and its experiments with cinematic conventions make for exactly the type of refreshing experience you expect from a film festival.