Tabu (2012) is a multi-layered film which is distinctly different to director Miguel Gomes’ previous film, the charming docu-drama Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto) (2008). In Tabu the tone is darker as Gomes focuses on the past and the present and how they are intertwined. From the opening scene, which acts as a prologue, themes and images which will appear later in the film are introduced. A nineteenth-century explorer (Telmo Churro) is shown walking through somewhere in Africa. Over this section a narrator (Gomes) tells the sad story of this melancholic, recently widowed explorer who jumps into a crocodile-infested river to an early death. The film then unexpectedly moves into the present day in a section entitled ‘Paradise Lost’. The story in this part of the film focuses on three women who live in a claustrophobic block of flats in Lisbon: Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged women who lives alone, her demanding and cantankerous elderly neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral) and Aurora’s African maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Gomes expertly conveys the sense of loneliness through the black and white photography, the miserable weather and joyless lives the three women lead. The very religious Pilar’s life is spent fighting for causes and being on call when Aurora has a crisis, such as when she gambles her allowance away at the casino. It is also Pilar that Aurora confides in when she says that Santa has been sent by the Devil as a punishment for something terrible she did in the past.
It is this past that is depicted in Part Two of the film, ‘Paradise’. Many of the themes that have been presented in Part One are repeated in Part Two. Set in the 1960s, this part of the film is filmed in grainy black and white and bravely Gomes chooses not to have any dialogue. It is narrated by Gomes himself, in the character of Gian Luca Ventura, an old man (Henrique Espírito Santo) who appears at the end of Part One. We learn that the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) led a privileged but lonely life growing up in one of the Portuguese African colonies (possibly Mozambique). Even when she marries, her isolation continues as her husband (Ivo Müller) is away a lot. The impractical presents he buys her, such as a baby crocodile, highlight her lonely existence. Aurora’s disregard of the danger of the crocodile is just one example of her doing whatever she with no awareness of the consequences, but as we know from Part One, she is later punished for her reckless behaviour.
It is no surprise that she embarks on a passionate affair with her handsome, charming neighbour, Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Their affair is set against a background of rising tension among the native Africans who are demanding independence, although this doesn’t really touch the lives of the white colonials, who continue with their cocktail and garden party lifestyle. Also, in the background as a constant threatening presence is the eponymous Mount Tabu. One of the characters has had a near-death experience on the mountain and it acts as a symbol of how precarious the colonials’ lives are and, on a more personal level, how precarious the relationship between Aurora and Gian Luca is.
As with Our Beloved Month of August, music plays an important part in the film. The fact that Gian Luca plays the drums in his friend Mário’s (Manuel Mesquita) band allows Gomes to put the music to the forefront and as with music of Our Beloved Month of August, it is pop music (this time from the 1960s) that acts as the musical soundtrack. Gomes introduces in-jokes, such as Mário’s Band in the 1960s performing the song ‘Baby I Love You’, where the band is shown miming to the Ramones’ 1980 version of the song. In Part One we see Pilar crying while listening to the 1960’s song ‘Tú Serás Mi Baby’ (‘Be My Baby’ sung in Spanish). We then realise she is watching a film while her male friend dozes next to her oblivious to her tears, but her tears seem to be much more than just an emotional response to a film. In a parallel scene in Part Two we see a distraught Aurora crying while listening to the same song, this is made more poignant due to the fact that she is pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. Is this the film that Pilar was watching and is Gomes therefore creating a film within a film?
Tabu is a carefully constructed film and is beautifully acted by the main actors. Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta, in particular, portray their characters convincingly, despite not having any dialogue to help them. There is a sense of watching two separate films rather than one unified one, as the two halves are very different, but they complement and inform each other on many levels. It deservedly won several awards, including Best Film at various international film festivals.