Following its premiere in the Berlinale’s main competition, Tabu has become this year’s art-house sensation. The film is split into two chapters – “A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” – borrowed, like the title, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu.
The first is set in present-day Lisbon, where Pilar (Madruga), a spinster leading an emotionally vicarious existence, spends her days advocating human rights and worrying about her increasingly senile neighbour Aurora (Soveral). The death of the latter initiates the second chapter, which depicts the young Aurora’s (Moreira) tragic love affair in an unnamed African colony. While the narrative sometimes suffers from a lack of cohesion, Tabu’s abundance of experimental flourishes is beguiling.
Shot in gorgeous black and white – a velvety 35mm in the first part and a grainier, almost tactile 16mm in the second – and projected in Academy ratio, the entire film pays loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking, playing with cinematic trademarks to very innovative effect. Most striking is its revamp of the silent film in the second chapter, which retains the diegetic sounds but mutes all dialogue while melancholic narration describes the events.
Where Tabu truly disappoints, however, is in its treatment of colonialism. Considering its problematic placement within a nostalgic framework, it’s given only superficial scrutiny, making you wish the film had avoided such a contentious issue and contented itself with its dazzling stylistic bravura.
Tabu | Directed by Miguel Gomes (Portugal, Germany, Brazil, France 2012) with Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira. Starts December 20