Portugal’s colonisation of African lands made its glorious past, kept Portugal in isolation during the Salazar years and now draws the country’s young to these lands in search of work and a future. Miguel Gomes’ TABU embraces the relationship between past, present and future in relation to the former colony of Mozambique in a film of two distinct, beautiful halves.
Gomes borrows not only the title of Murnau’s 1931 film, but elements of the silent film aesthetic. He also switches the order of the Murnau’s original’s halves – in the first part of Gomes’ film, paradise is already lost. Paradoxically, its recovery through recollection in the second half pushes this paradise even further out of reach.
TABU, the critics’ darling of this year’s Berlinale, has been described as a cinephile’s film.
Central to the film are the fictions we tell, either to ourselves or those around us, either to spare the feelings of others, or those of our own. These fictions include faith in God or religion, science, parapsychology, palm-reading, etiquette and archetypes. They are woven into the stories of three women in present-day Lisbon for the first half of the film – the kindly Pilar; Aurora, potentially losing her sharpness to dementia; and her African housekeeper Santa.
TABU, the critics’ darling of this year’s Berlinale, has been described as a cinephile’s film. There is so much to it and so much to reward its audience. Miguel wrote film criticism for four years before beginning to make films of his own. His inventiveness draws from his knowledge, producing a work which is scattered with historic and cinematic references, themselves acting like the ghosts of a collective memory. Those films referenced, those stories alluded to are also epic fictions, with which we are familiar and to which we attribute meaning and attach emotion.
There is longing for reality through fiction. The relationship between the two becomes blurred. The Lisbon of the first half of the film looks as deserted as the African plains of the second part. Modernity is supplanted by memory. Memory is supplanted by fiction.
The original script for this section was abandoned during shooting and became itself a fiction as Gomes and his cast improvised the story. During the shooting of this section, he asked the cast to simply mime the dialogue. Not just a nod to the Stummfilme of Murnau’s era, this also adds to the distance of the narrator’s recollection. The characters become like apparitions.
The symbolism of the crocodile which appears so prominently in the film has already been much debated and discussed.
The second half, “Paradise”, shows how humankind can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven. The symbolism of the crocodile which appears so prominently in the film has already been much debated and discussed. What could it mean? The archetype of the crocodile is already recognised as signifying several things, amongst them a woman’s devouring nature or a portent of dark things lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps it simply heralds the “Fall” that will occur in this earthly paradise.
Tabu’s narrative itself presents the ultimate constructed fictions – our histories. These histories we construct from the stories we tell to ourselves. They form our reality, and they shape our present. But their recollection forms a longing that echoes across time, continents and the souls of men.
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012 by Steve Williams
- Midnight Sun/Insomnia by Steve Williams
- Life Just Is by Jim Ross (Managing Editor)