The memories that shape us exist as stories within the grander tale of our lives: retold, but never relived. Some memories are their own lifetimes, eras of love and tragedy from another world far removed from the “normal” course of our lives –– stories that others would never suspect and might never believe, but that nonetheless define us more than the stories we freely share. This is Tabu, a bittersweet film that uncovers the sordid youth of a kooky old woman, and the consequences of a story no one else knows. It’s a poignant, quirky, and lyrical film, yet it could have been so much more than its disjointed first act allows.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a woman who can’t resist the impulse to try to fix everything and everyone around her. Her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral/Ana Moreira) is a lonely, temperamental old woman who lives with her absent daughter’s servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso) and wastes all her money on casinos. Pilar worries about her deteriorating health and attempts to convince Santa to take her to a doctor, but Santa insists that Aurora’s daughter did not give her permission to do so. It isn’t until Aurora’s condition worsens that Santa finally relents. On her death bed, Aurora mysteriously demands to see a man named Ventura (Henrique Espíritu Santo/Carloto Cotta), a man no one else knows exists. Pilar finds him spending the twilight of his years in a convalescent hospital, and discovers that he has a story to tell –– a story of forbidden love, exotic adventure, and the tragedy of passion.
The telling of this story constitutes the majority of the film’s runtime and contains most of the elements that make it successful. It’s not a particularly novel tale, nor one that is terribly shocking, but that is perhaps what makes it effective: it is something most of us can relate to, perhaps even lived ourselves (at least in part). But “effective” doesn’t describe what director Miguel Gomes achieves here. There is an almost mythic quality to the tale, and he finds a stylish manner in which to tell it. The whole film is shot in black and white and in Academy ratio, and the long, uninterrupted flashback that is Ventura’s story is almost a silent film. While all the sounds of the world are audible, the only voices heard are those of Ventura and, on rare occasion, Aurora (through letters), narrating a secret story no one else could tell. Somehow, this simple stylistic choice lends an indescribable sense of intimacy that would not have otherwise been realized, and makes the inevitable calamity that much more melancholic.
It is a beautiful film that succeeds in imbuing a classically romantic splendor to colonial Africa before the ouster of the Portuguese, without crossing the line into naive absurdity. The film’s opening, of Pilar watching an old film about a heartbroken explorer, sets up the style of Ventura’s story. One gets the definite impression it is more how Pilar herself is imagining the tale based on her cinematic knowledge of colonial Africa, rather than how it actually was. There is a pinch of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, too, a levity that serves to validate the occasionally odd world of the film.
The problem with the film, though, is that for all the simple elegance of its latter half, the first part of the film feels like a mess. Pilar’s journey, if she has one, is quite unclear. Various plot elements exist seemingly without any real purpose: a young Polish woman who was supposed to stay with Pilar but doesn’t, Santa’s enrollment in adult literacy classes, or Pilar’s participation in protest demonstrations, to name a few examples. Why it is important to know these things about characters who aren’t important to the real story, the story of Aurora and Ventura, is perplexing. The film never returns to them once the storytelling segment begins, so all those loose threads remain that way. And given that the film really isn’t about Pilar and Santa, the amount of time spent with them is difficult to justify. This meandering introduction to the film just feels like an unnecessary delay, rather than the separate story it was probably meant to be.
Nonetheless, the film certainly redeems itself. It is far from a masterpiece, but while it’s not as thought-provoking or affecting as other European films currently playing in the States, it is still a memorable experience with a beautiful style and a touching finale that more than makes up for whatever aimlessness plagued its beginning.
Editor’s Note: Tabu is playing in West LA at Laemmle’s Royal and in Pasadena at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7.