Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’s curious and beguiling Tabu is a film in two hour-long parts. Part One, titled “Paradise Lost,” is set in a decidedly unglamorous modern-day Lisbon, where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) appears to go through the motions of political activism without displaying any real investment in it. She’s more concerned with the well-being of her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has lately grown paranoid and delusional. Shortly before passing away, Aurora produces a man’s name—“Ventura.” The old man turns out to be Aurora’s former lover, and in Part Two, titled “Paradise,” he recounts the story of their love affair, carried out in colonial Africa circa 1960.
The consensus among viewers and critics seems to be that the second half of Tabu is superior to its first, and it’s true that the Africa sequences are rapturously directed and photographed: the whole film has been shot in black-and-white, but the cinematography in Part One has a clear-eyed sharpness, while in Part Two it grows soft and hazy, as if seen through a filter of gauze. (It looks like nothing so much as an early silent film, and it is almost silent, save for Ventura’s voice-over narration and some blissful ’60s pop songs. It may be that Gomes is paying homage here to the great silent filmmaker F. W. Murnau, who made a Tabu of his own in 1931.) The film is worth seeing if only for the stunning imagery here: the head of a crocodile half submerged in water, looking like a statue made of cracked stone, or the young Aurora, swathed in a silk kimono, basking in a cane chair in her garden.
There’s something problematic, to be sure, about Gomes’ representation of colonial Africa as a lost paradise (A. O. Scott, for example, has expressed discomfort with this aspect of the film). But surely Gomes is aware of this: the film explicitly thematizes (and ironizes) issues of race and colonialism, and the subtly observed details of Part One imply that Portugal’s colonial legacy is continuing to play out in twenty-first-century Lisbon, where, for example, the devoted black companion who attends Aurora has replaced the African servants who looked after her farmhouse in the mountains. The problem seems to me not that Gomes has uncritically made a film about imperialism, but rather that Tabu is far more engrossing and successful as a colonial romance than as a political film. Even this point of contention is worth mulling over, though; Tabu’s flaws are more interesting than many other films’ strengths. This was the movie I had been waiting to see before making up my year’s-best list, and I’m happy I waited for it. Highly recommended.