Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, a meditative fable about love, memory and loneliness that jumps deftly between contemporary Lisbon, colonial Africa and the landscape of dreams has been gathering steam on the festival circuit, notably in Berlin this month. The film takes both its title and structure from F.W. Murnau’s final cinematic statement, a collaboration with Robert Flaherty. Shot in grainy black and white, the film begins with a brief parable about a colonial ruler who, despairing over his lost lover, feeds himself to a crocodile.
From here on in, the film is divided into two parts, “Paradise” and “Lost Paradise.” In the first, we follow the mundane day-to-day activities of a devout elderly woman, Pilar, and her extravagant and bitter neighbor, Aurora, whose grip on reality becomes increasingly tenuous. Methodically paced, deliberate and quietly observed, this first section is reminiscent of both of early Jarmusch and Béla Tarr. At its end, Aurora lies in a hospital and summons a stranger to her bedside.
The film now shifts into its second part, as the stranger recalls his love affair with Aurora half a century earlier in an unnamed country in Africa. The stranger’s poetic narration drives what is, from here on in, mostly a silent film, with the exception of ingeniously isolated and amplified sound effects. The photography is lush, the landscapes exquisite and the overall feel hearkens back to the great Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 50s. At the same time, the lighting and camera angles betray the influence of German Expressionism, and the vacuum of dialogue makes the film’s final hour intensely surreal.
At the Berlinale Tabu was widely expected to carry the Golden Bear, an honor that went instead to the Taviani’s excellent Caesar Must Die. Gomes did walk away with the Alfred Bauer Award, named for the festival’s founder, as well as the Best Film award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI).