'Tabu' a Frustratingly Esoteric Study of Guilt and Adultery

Directed by: Miguel Gomes; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: C+

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes casts an esoteric spell with his third feature-length film, Tabu, a tale of guilt, forbidden love, and mythical crocodiles set through the sweltering African landscape, with a mystery embedded within about the woman whose experiences prove to be the code to comprehending events in the past and present. Obstinate lyricism and an inclination towards silent-era homage styling somewhat in the vein of Chris Marker and Guy Maddin lend the film a strange, resonant core, hallmarked by rich motifs distilled from mischievous cinematic tricks: a restless older woman divulges her dreamscape in a lengthy one-sided diatribe, counterbalanced by an entire second half of the film free of dialogue aside from its languidly poetic narration. Its strangeness serves as a mask over what's ultimately a traditional exploration of the eventual overdramatic demons within one's past, making it a demanding exercise in ominous self-reference that's enhanced by Gomes' eye for compellingly soulful imagery.

After setting the film's tone with a downhearted movie within a movie, a tale of an African hunter driven to commit suicide in crocodile-infested waters because of a love affair, Tabu introduces the mystery of an elderly woman, Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose daily agitation concerns her neighbor, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who's disappointed that a visiting nun won't be staying at her house. The first half of the film, gloomily entitled "Paradise Lost" and set in Lisbon, revolves around building curiosity towards Aurora and her standoffish African maid, Santa (Isabel Munoz), the same sort of curiosity that drives Pilar when she's not engaged in political protests and socializing with her artist friend (and willing suitor). Gomes' style makes this section a disjointed challenge, almost intentionally so: Aurora's long-winded and nonsensical explanation of her symbolic dream feeds into her struggles with assumed dementia and confusion, leaving only the uninformed point-of-views of Pilar and Santa to make sense of the film's cryptic, meandering objectives. Turns out, after Aurora's inquiry to find a man named Gian-Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), it's quite intentional.

Director Gomes insists on keeping Aurora's mysteries well-obscured until the second half of Tabu, entitled "Paradise", where we're transported to '60s Africa at the edge of Mount Tabu just before the Portuguese Colonial war. The simmering political hostilities only serve as a backdrop for the complex love affair involving this version of Aurora (shrewdly captured by Ana Moreira) -- then married to a wealthy farmer -- unknown to the two women, told through calm, persistent narration from Gian-Luca Ventura with only the scattered pops of guns, splashes of water, as chirping insects as unassuming background noises alongside classic rock tunes. Enigmatic details buried within her ramblings begin to make sense during the flashback, as her nature as a calculated hunter and frigid individual outside of her tryst with Ventura (Carloto Cotta), an explorer with experiences in love and fame, becomes the film's compelling and evolving cipher. Gomes employs deeply expressive physical performances and ornate cinematography in place of actual dialogue between the characters, moving sluggishly at first until the film's unique heartrending sensuality engages the two lovers' character traits.

The peaks of Tabu's expressiveness lie in how director Gomes ethereally transports those observing the flashbacks -- whether it's the way they originally occurred or how they've manifest in Ventura's mind -- to a bygone era, achieving almost a documentary-like style amid subtle textural delights: playing table tennis in the rain, gazing upon a pet crocodile's scales, and making love underneath a mosquito net. On the other hand, this also feeds into one of the film's faults by simply ending "Paradise" without tying it back to the present era once Ventura's tale of secret rendezvous and romantic turmoil comes to a close. Instead, Gomes lets the climactic images painted by an old man's words to be the final deductions and catharsis points in the mystery built around Aurora, culminating in a pair of drawn-out and disparate blocks of exploratory character drama that leave one perplexed by the love affair's repercussions. Ultimately relying on meta reflections in the final moments of its distinctive and often ponderous ruminations about romance and fatalism, Tabu's resonance could benefit from more finality and consequence.

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