The past is a foreign country. Never has novelist L P Hartley’s famous utterance been so relevant as it is to Miguel Gomes’ latest film, Tabu. Except this time, we are crossing continents in search of those elusive memories.
Split into two parts, the first in modern day Portugal, and the second in period colonial Africa, Gomes unravels the life of Aurora (Laura Soveral), a senile but lively woman. In the first section, we observe her being cared for in her small apartment by Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), her African maid. Gambling away her small fortune and plagued by the idea that Santa is practising voodoo on her, Aurora looks to her neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madrugal) for help. Pilar, a reserved, humble Christian woman, is left to deal with Aurora’s hysterical delusions, while trying to convince Santa that Aurora needs more intensive care. Amidst all this Pilar is struggling to come to terms with her own loneliness and lack of purpose in the world, embarking on farcical human rights protests.
The two ‘countries’ click into place with the discovery of Aurora’s past life on an unnamed African farm. An old acquaintance comes back into the picture, and begins to reveal Aurora’s secrets. At this point we move back into the past, where her life is depicted like a lost silent film. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), a stubborn tomboy, begins her life with her new husband and imminent child, but is shellshocked by the arrival of the dashing Ventura (Carloto Cotta).
Tabu begins slowly and tentatively but its subtle charms begin to reel you in. It is an ode to silent film, the title a reference to F W Murnau’s own Tabu, but it never feels like Gomes is rehashing old ground for the sake of it. The whole film is shot in black and white, the grainy stock indicating which time period we are in. While the first half is conventionally audible, the African adventure does away with dialogue, but retains the sound of the environment. The two actors Moreira and Cotta look uncannily like silent film stars, complete with pencil moustaches, luminous eyes and expressive faces. If you wanted to read anything into this choice, perhaps you could say that Gomes is pointing to the way we tend to organise and direct memories in our head, chopping and cutting, fantasising, re-imagining.
Tabu is a film that could easily be dismissed as typical arthouse drudgery, but if you succumb to its whims you will find a memorable, funny, touching and at times magical ode to memory, silent film and love.