‘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.”
As “Tabu” dives into the past, it switches from black-and-white 35mm to black-and-white 16mm; the images gain the attractive haze of faulty memory. Aurora, now played by the regally erotic Ana Moreira, is married to a dullard plantation owner (Ivo Müller) and pregnant with his child, but she tailspins into a torrid romance with the studly young Ventura (Carloto Cotta). It’s a classic l’amour fou, the old dance of sex and death, but the film has an odd attitude toward it. We only hear the older Ventura’s rhapsodic narration, never the characters’ voices, and that narrative track often plays out over images of the Mozambique terrain and the natives’ faces, of daily labors and empty rooms. It’s as though Gomes were remaking Murnau’s docu-fiction so that the two halves obliquely criticize each other.
Some audiences and reviewers have found “Tabu” a heady tale of passion along the lines of “The English Patient.” I’m not convinced. The older Aurora is an egotistical pill and her younger self is more of the same; her affair with Ventura seems less a grand folly than delusional small potatoes. Maybe it depends on who’s hearing the tale; since Ventura is telling it to the passive Pilar in modern-day Lisbon, maybe we’re meant to take it any which way. Dreams can be like that.
More often, dreams are encoded messages, metaphors from the deep, and far beneath its gorgeously ambiguous surface, “Tabu” has less than pretty things to say about bourgeois Europeans in Third World countries, their self-absorption and petty cruelty. One of the film’s eeriest motifs is the crocodile that pops up repeatedly in various corners of the narrative, munching on a bereaved explorer early on, swimming in Aurora’s bathtub, gazing out at the viewer with an unforgiving alien eye. No matter how much we romanticize the past, “Tabu” suggests, the crocodile always gets us in the end.