A temperamental old woman, her Cape Verdean maid and a caring neighbour live on the same floor of a Lisbon apartment building, sharing a seemingly uneventful existence. The devout Pilar (Teresa Madruga) gives her time to social causes and also tries to support the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who gambles away her money at the casino and is convinced that her maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) is casting spells on her. As Aurora's health fades, she asks for a man to be summoned to her deathbed. When he is found, he tells an incredible story – one of an obsessive love, a melancholic crocodile, and a crime of passion with lingering repercussions.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Woody Allen once complained that television audiences have had their tastes systematically lowered. Has the same thing happened at film festivals? At times, it seems that festivals from Cannes to that worst of offenders, Rotterdam, pump up substandard fare to justify their existence. So welcome to Portuguese film Tabu, which won prizes at this year’s Berlinale and plays in the Sydney Film Festival competition on June 10.
A black-and-white film that presents maudlin romance wrapped in an ironic, colonialist picture book, Tabu begins with a pre-credit sequence of a faux antique documentary about a pith-helmeted explorer who discovers dancing African natives. It looks cheap, it looks flat, but – aha – it is only a movie watched by middle-aged Mrs. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) alone in a contemporary Lisbon cinema. This is where the 'first’ section of the film announced as 'A Lost Paradise’ truly begins. A good-hearted woman who helps out at anti-genocide demonstrations, Pilar offers a compassionate ear to her aging, compulsive gambler, neighbour Mrs. Aurora (Laura Soveral), who spouts forth on crocodiles, Africa and her fear that her weary Cape Verdian maid (Isabel Cardoso) is practicing voodoo. In this section, director Miguel Gomes has his actors (most of them very experienced) talk in flat monotone as if all life has been drained from them. Tabu has many devoted fans and even they, like Jay Weissberg from Variety, describe this section as 'maddeningly artificial".
This 50-odd minutes of dreariness is a set-up for an extended flashback and the film that its admirers fondly remember (leaving behind the film they conveniently forget). In hospital dying, Aurora requests that Pilar seek out a man (Henrique Espirito Santo) from her past.
This second section is entitled 'Paradise’ and – still in black-and-white – is told in a blow up of 16mm Academy ratio as opposed to the 35mm film seen so far. The old man’s voice tells the story in storybook voiceover narration of the married life of Aurora (Ana Moreira) and the affair she had with the once handsome man/narrator (Carloto Cotta), and about the crocodile, in an un-named Portuguese African colony where native tea farmers and their 'White Mischief" masters alike are all overshadowed by Mt Tabu.
As narration takes over, no dialogue is heard, though sounds from door knocks to gunshots persist. The acting, or more accurately, miming, is exaggerated and clumsy. The romance unfolds and then unravels, amongst the film’s many, many affectations.
Gomes is a former film critic, so there’s no doubting his intended reference to the ethnographic drama collaboration between F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). The earlier film is also in two halves, with 'Paradise’ and 'Paradise Lost’ being the original order. Both films are in-between inventions. In 1931, the tensions were the results of artistic disputes and financial hardship. In this case, the tensions are by self-conscious design.
The only sign of life in this half-hearted parody/homage to colonialism is a twice played Portuguese version of 'Be My Baby’, recalling both Kenneth Anger’s seminal use of bubblegum pop in Scorpio Rising (1964) and Noel Coward’s words about how potent cheap music can be. It’s not enough to save this extended, arty home movie. Not in my home, anyway.