The power of the lens to deconstruct colonial history is a primary concern in Miguel Gomes’ third feature, Tabu (2012). Partitioned by two distinctive halves, it’s a mesmeric example of how to unravel filmic modes without clogging up the narrative. The first section is set in modern day Lisbon and follows pious elderly woman Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and her concerns about neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s convinced that her African maid (Isabel Cardoso) is using voodoo against her. Pilar tracks down Ventura, a man from Aurora’s past whom she once married at the foot of Africa’s Mount Tabu, over 50 years prior.
Looming throughout the whole of Tabu is its symbolic register. In the short prologue, the crocodile is embedded as a strong and recurring motif of memory, ancient wisdom, danger and deceptive indolence, themes which resonate and persist through much of the film. The most noticeable comment from Gomes is how history engulfs our lives today and even though events have disappeared from general consciousness, we are willing to keep them alive. Interestingly, crocodiles were also associated with primordial chaos; this is delivered as a stunning juxtaposition against the calm, contemplative reflection of Gomes’ film.
The narrative’s themes are most tangible and flagrant in the second part: a zero dialogue, dualistic exploration of colonial Africa and innocent love accompanied only by a profoundly poetic and rich voiceover, which could well have been penned by Albert Camus. Tabu is also shot entirely in black and white, partly suggesting how history is naturally over-colourful when we imagine it through nostalgia instead of fact and is Gomes’ way of turning the focus onto the language. This isn’t to say the cinematography is dull or lifeless – quite the opposite. Its beauty comes from how steeped it is in early cinema; rejecting elaborate production techniques and adopting monochrome.
Gomes’ latest is filled with the kind of aesthetic and melancholic insight that is so crucial in the films of Béla Tarr. These elements do naturally aim Tabu more towards dedicated cinephiles, but the Portuguese alleviates the pressure with moments of odd, quirky humour. The level of intelligence with which Gomes examines lineage and identity is perhaps what makes it such an engaging and rewarding watch (a natural consequence is its occasional impenetrability). As is the case with so many true arthouse productions, it is more an essayist approach to film – loaded with content to discuss after the credits have rolled.
Not only does Gomes’ Tabu nod towards F. W. Murnau’s film of the same name, it suggests how our confrontation of past events and traditions may well be a taboo itself. But equally as exciting is Gomes’ confirmation on the international stage as a competent and accomplished filmmaker.
Win a Blu-ray copy of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu with our latest competition. Follow this link to enter.