Edited for Clarity
Aesthetic marvels abound in Miguel Gomes’ sensory, illusive Tabu, but never for their own sake. Bifurcated with lush, lustrous 35mm and diaphanous, hazy 16mm, Tabu risks being a mere formalist plaything, but its application of cinematic styles both forgotten and remembered encircles a precarious vision of memory and fiction constructed through filmmaking. An absurdist prologue about a conquistador melancholically lost amidst his own colonization of Africa envisions the man jumping into a pond to emerge a crocodile at an impasse. The crocodile seemingly doesn’t act at all; it simply lurks, possibly plots, and ultimately sadly and silently confronts the memories of forlorn glory and past victory, a conqueror now doomed to witness the myopia of his vision. The crocodile is a metaphor for something, possibly the dying, decaying memory of colonialist Africa that seems long gone but still lurks in the margins. It’s as if the crocodile lingers as silent testament to the failure of modern social efforts to escape the pernicious traces of past oppression still present in society; the conquistador neutralized, but not eliminated. Tabu explores the half-suffused memories of colonialism as forgotten films needing to be rediscovered and addressed out in the open in order to keep this crocodile at bay.
The magisterial back-half of Tabu is an illicit, dreamlike haunt of a Lynchian melodrama set in a colonial dreamland, one that bears witness to dormant traumas both physical and mental, to the still-present desire to fantasize about colonialism today, and to the capacity for memory and fiction to both authorize and criticize oppressions of the past and present. But all of that will come to pass in the film’s second half, before which we meet Pilar (Teresa Madruga), an elderly white woman in modern-day Lisbon. She becomes infatuated with her dying neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) and Aurora’s African immigrant maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso), who herself will eventually track down Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), a man Aurora used to love, or at least thinks she did. This first portion of the film is lensed with a diamond filigree by Rui Pocas in iron-clad, austere black-and-white, but the beauty of this sequence as a standing ground or bedrock of naturalism is only revealed, like the hidden memories of time, once the masked lens of the past is taken off, or applied, as Ventura regales us with the tale of how he met Aurora in the first place.
The second half of Tabu, encompassing this tale, is a steamy, sensuous melodrama that pays homage to, and critiques, FW Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name. The crocodile, a harbinger of fantastique, transforms into a witness and instigator of a colonial fable for the audience, a decadent, fictitious trip into not only Ventura’s mind but the racist history of cinema and the lingering, constructed fictions about race that cinema has done more than its fair share to perpetuate in an ostensibly color-blind modern society. The fable, which willfully avoids race and instead plays like a trivial, hot-headed potboiler, initially seems to negate or deny the reality of colonialism. But a closer peer into its viscous cloud of deceit-spawning grain reveals a work literalizing the vision of colonial society that many films, and many people, have clung to over-time. The temptation is to call this film-within-a-film a mere “fantasy”, the delusional, flickering memory of a person longing for what she might see as a “simpler” past, but it’s less a figment of her imagination than an unconscious dream that structures our reality today.
Much as frail, elderly Aurora’s ostensible niceties toward Santa cloud a hidden underbelly of secret fear aimed at black bodies, the secondary portion of the film, tellingly realized in hyperbolic imagery and with no spoken roles outside Ventura’s foggy, hairline-fracture narration, belies its own self-critique. Structured like a sumptuous fable of unkempt eroticism in a colonial toybox, Gomes laminates this back half film in a lush texture recalling Murnau’s own works and their remembrance of a world not real so much as a dreamlike construction recalling how we wish the world to be. The romance that ensues finds young Aurora and Ventura dolled-up in the skin of Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta, both of whom are pointedly too-beautiful-for-words but caked in a ghoulish waxworks show of makeup (much like the tale itself), falsely idealized humans that grotesquely parody the silent cinema form. The sequence has no room for black agency, no voice for black bodies, even when their mouths do open. The audio-visual contrast is illuminating; even when black voices try to speak, we don’t hear them because Ventura and whites like him don’t want to listen, their identities as colonizers conditioned on the black voice as a structuring absence.
Other incisive scalpels of false memory – such as the way a Ramones song bleeds from the modern realism of the first half into the unctuous memory of the second half – expose the lustrous cinematography and gorgeous, adventurous passion and lust as a calcified fiction fabricated for the mental stability of the white community. In kiln-blasting this memory in the stylings of cinemas of the past, Gomes not only exposes the artifice of such visions, but interrogates the role of cinema in the formation of memory and the persistence of a dark underbelly of forgotten voices in the real world. Dreamlike imagery externalizes internal selves, reminding that fables are also drugs. Ventura and those like him remember the past less like oppressive reality and more like a bonafide, gilded Hollywood classic: they think in films.
The temptation to decry Tabu for its aesthetic radicalism – to claim that it’s all a formalist cinematic toy, complicit with the aesthetic fancies of the colonizers – belies the way the formal artistry is baked into the shriveled minds of characters whose well-beings rely on this sort of aesthetic lie to author their own colonial personas. The film’s stark, harrowing, and acerbically funny divergence of cinematic styles – between the harsh chiaroscuro and 1:37:1 aspect ratio of the “present” sequences like a modern noir and the sickly, overcast swamp of memory of the past – carves out a discursive region between reality and cinema, or contested space and fading time. As the heavily lined, tactile modernity fades into ghostly past scenery that bleeds out into the frame before us, almost threatening nonexistence, the film questions the very idea that cinema can depict a true past, tied as it is into the nocturnal remembrances of humankind. Rather than merely exposing the colonization of Africa as a geographic region, Tabu implies that colonization is not tethered purely to physical space. The film uncloaks the colonization of something more intangible, and arguably something more damaging: not only of cinema, but of the human mind.
It all boils down to that crocodile, a bystander (it becomes a pet owned by the young Aurora) we assume to be passive, but who instead insidiously persists, surviving subliminally and structuring the back-half of the tale because of how arbitrary and hidden it initially seems. Much like the shift from formal colonialism to post-colonial, post-racial modernity, the crocodile lies dormant under a veneer of domestication and passivity, but it still prowls around at night, still structuring our memories, instigating torrid tragedies, and invading, contaminating, and structuring the cinema that might otherwise authorize more radical, alternative realities.