Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu” is a conventional story of forbidden love presented in a visually dazzling package that took me a full act to start enjoying. The reason for my delayed gratification was the film’s unusual structure: it begins with an ultimately irrelevant framing story that distracts from the meat. But once “Tabu” reaches its core material, which is told through vibrant visuals and gloriously off-kilter direction, it soars.
“Tabu” begins in Lisbon, focusing on a middle-aged woman named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) who is concerned about her elderly, increasingly out-of-touch neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). When Aurora suddenly dies, the film shifts back in time by roughly 40 years to Africa, as an old man named Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) tells Pilar about how he and Aurora fell in love, despite the inconvenience that Aurora was married and pregnant.
Although “Tabu” is ultimately concerned with the affair between young Ventura and Aurora (Carloto Cotta and Ana Moreira), the first act lingers for far too long on Pilar, whose story does not serve as a satisfying complement to that of the lovers. Pilar’s secondary dramas with a male friend whose advances she rejects, a Polish girl who was supposed to stay with her but doesn’t, and Aurora’s caretaker all ultimately contribute little to the main attraction, primarily because screenwriters Gomes and Mariana Ricardo never give them the kind of closure necessary to thematically tie them to the flashbacks. Apparently, Gomes intended for the contemporary frame story to provide a political commentary on the colonialist relationship between Africa and Portugal, but this fails to translate (at least for viewers who are not intimately knowledgeable about the subject) and leaves “Tabu” seemingly at odds with itself. The film’s romance would have been more poignant had Pilar merely functioned a stand-in for the audience as Ventura recounted his memories to her, maintaining the flashback structure but minimizing distraction from Ventura and Aurora’s story.
“Tabu” really takes off stylistically when it finally moves to Africa. Rui Poças’ black-and-white, Academy ratio cinematography is nothing short of exquisite. He photographs the lush savanna in Ford-esque long shots, which are combined with a frequently mobile camera to capture the dynamic energy of the environment. Night scenes are equally gorgeous: Poças’ low-key lighting gives a noirish undertone to the film that underlines the illicit nature of the Ventura and Aurora’s affair. “Tabu” must be seen on the big screen for the viewer to fully experience its eye-popping photography.
The story may cover the well-trod ground of the forbidden romance paradigm, but it is presented by Gomes in a peculiar style that bestows upon it a layer of lyricism. Gomes invites comparisons to the works of F.W. Murnau by using the same title as the silent filmmaker’s 1931 release, and the influence is often detectable. Most noticeably, “Tabu” is partially a silent film in that Gomes gives the love story the literal silent treatment, removing the actors’ voices completely (although they are shown speaking), while leaving in ambient sounds and indigenous music. By fusing lyrical romance with real-world noise, Gomes conveys the transient nature of the characters’ affair, hammering home that their disapproving society is always watching.
As far as purely aesthetic experiences go, “Tabu” leads the pack at this year’s New York Film Festival. Had Gomes significantly curtailed his pointless prelude and injected originality into the romance narrative, the film could have been transcendent. As is, its formal accomplishments still bode well for the filmmaker, who will undoubtedly be capable of great things if he develops a project with the substance to match his stylistic command.