‘Tabu” is a black-and-white fever dream, and, like all dreams, its meanings are elusive. It’s opaque, maddening, often pretentious, yet the pretensions may be on purpose, to push us away from the adulterous colonials at the story’s center and reveal the Africa they’re too obsessed with each other to see. It’s hard to tell, and that’s both the film’s strength and its weakness. The work of Portuguese director and co-writer Miguel Gomes, “Tabu” has won a number of European festival awards, and it almost seems a parody of willfully obscure art-house fare. Yet it has an undertow that sucks you in as often as it strands you back on shore.
The title is a conscious echo of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 “Tabu,” a classic anthropological docu-fiction set in the South Seas. Like the original, Gomes’s film is divided into two parts, but their names are reversed; where the 1931 movie began with “Paradise,” this one starts with “Paradise Lost.” That fallen world now looks a lot like Lisbon, where the middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) drifts through her days, occasionally looking in on the dotty old lady next door. Aurora (Laura Soveral) has a nasty gambling habit and contempt for her African caregiver (Isabel Cardoso); she asks Pilar to look up an old flame, Ventura (Henrique Espiríto Santo), and his recollections of their love affair in long-ago Mozambique become the film’s second-part “Paradise.”