(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on April 5, 2013.)
This review is dedicated to Roger Ebert, who passed away on April 4, 2013.
Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is an odd bird of a movie, and I will be forming my opinion on it as I write, as I really don’t have one at this time. What you are about to read is more of a journal entry than anything else, where I examine what I liked and didn’t like about it; you could probably equate this to the notes you see critics scribbling in their pads during movies, but in more of a monologue format. Tabu is a 2012 Portuguese film that’s just making its DC-area bow today at the Angelika in Merrifield, but is it worth a look? I’m inclined to say yes, and here’s why… storytelling.
Gomes uses sparse techniques here, such as minimalist black-and-white film and compositions, handheld cameras, no dialogue for the last half of the movie, and almost a complete absence of non-diegetic music (meaning that if you don’t see it, you can’t hear it). There are no dramatic orchestral swells; there are no grand crane shots to give the movie an “epic” feel; there are no funny, snarky, quotable dialogue exchanges; and there are no complicated visual effects. Tabu is a very simple, plain, quiet movie that makes you focus on the story rather than a movie’s trappings. Let’s put it this way: it’s the exact opposite of a Michael Bay film.
He also employs a little bit of misdirection, as we don’t know quite who we’re supposed to keep our eyes on. At first, we’re watching a man walk through a savannah only to be eaten by a crocodile. We soon find out that it’s a movie Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is watching, as she seems to be a film enthusiast. She also seems to be entertained by the daily drama of her neighbors, Aurora (Laura Soveral) and her housemaid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), often sticking her unwelcome nose into their business. Aurora’s elderly and poor, and Santa dabbles in voodoo, all of which concern Pilar; also, Aurora’s health (both mental and physical) starts failing, and that’s when Pilar feels the need to step in and help. With her health failing and feeling that someone may be missing her, Aurora gives Pilar one name in her last moments: Gian-Luca Ventura. Pilar sets to finding Ventura, but will we like what she finds?
The prologue and second half of the movie employ a very curious storytelling technique: none of the actors’ voices can be heard. Their mouths move and conversations happen, but nothing can be heard except the ambient noises from their surroundings. Narration is provided – for both prologue and second half – in lieu of dialogue. It’s an interesting and beguiling technique, to be sure, and when the second half gets going, that’s where the story gets more involving. The first half is full of frippery and quirk, while the second half begins a story that you couldn’t possibly have expected. It’s in this second half where the flightiness of the first half is forgotten; from the time you see the words “Part II – Paraíso” on the screen, you wind up rooted to the spot with both heels dug in all the way to the climax. Tabu winds up being a riveting, fascinating look inside Aurora’s shady past that explains her haunted future; you may want to revisit it to catch anything you may have missed.