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Sometimes I think critics include a movie on their top 10 lists simply because it’s the last one they remember seeing. That might be the case with “Tabu,” which showed up on more than one list, but isn’t nearly as interesting a film as it pretends to be, or as the critics who rave about it seem to think it is.

“Tabu” is full of auteur tricks and cinephile homages. It borrows its name from an obscure FW Murnau silent, it’s filmed in black and white and utilizes two different film speeds, and the entire second half has no dialogue, only voiceover. But underneath all those tricks is a surprising conventional film. Well, more precisely, two films.

After a brief interlude involving an intrepid explorer, a ghost and a crocodile, Part 1 begins, which is titled “Lost Paradise.” It’s about three women living in present-day Lisbon — Pilar, her neighbor Aurora, and Aurora’s African caretaker, Santa. Aurora is wildly dramatic, and probably senile.  She sneaks away from Santa to gamble away any money she comes across. She corners Pilar one day and shares her fears that Santa is a servant of the devil who has imprisoned her and cast a curse upon them all. Of course the truth is much less dramatic, but Pilar still feels obligated to try and do something for her aging neighbor. And when her health takes a turn for the worse and Aurora asks her only friend to track down a man she once knew, of course Pilar obliges her.

The man’s name is Ventura, and he’s not very hard to track down. The second half of the film, titled “Paradise,” is his recounting of his relationship with Aurora; the entire thing is narrated by him but acted out like something from “Unsolved Mysteries” — the actors on the screen speak but we never hear their words, only ambient sounds around them. It is an interesting way to portray a memory, to keep us aware that this isn’t happening, it’s being remembered. But really – an hour of flashback? The contrivance grows old fast, and we never transition out of it into more immediate and direct storytelling.

The memory takes place in Mozambique, back when it was a Portuguese colony. Aurora is the beautiful bored wife of a rich merchant, and Ventura is a rake and a roustabout. He looks an awful lot like pirate Johnny Depp in “Chocolat.” Of course this is the kind of guy you should never trust around your women, but Aurora’s husband is out of town quite a bit, and there’s the matter of a constantly escaping pet crocodile. Pretty soon they are in bed (Aurora and Ventura, not the crocodile) and not long after that they are in love. But she is pregnant, and the baby is her husband’s, not her lover’s. This is a love story that can only end in tragedy. (Which, of course, we already knew, because this is all being tragically remembered, mind you.)

So essentially, we have two movies — the two parts are too stylistically different to be considered anything else. The first half is a quiet, borderline boring Euroflick about aging and loneliness. It has a vaguely Almodovarian feel, though there are no transvestites or ghosts, only a cadre of middle-aged women. The second half is more classical, and also more formulaic, reminiscent of sweeping, exotic romances from the golden age of Hollywood without ever approaching that kind of grandeur. (Indeed, it uses pretense to steer clear of that kind of grandeur and emotional intensity. Of it was as overheated and melodramatic as the movies it’s emulating, it would probably be unbearably campy.) Both halves are decently made short films — probably better than average, but I think for “Tabu” to really work, the two halves need to connect on a deeper level than the plot. And that never materializes. I want the two halves to comment on each other, to enrich each other in some way, but it’s just not there. So really, all it amounts to is, “hey, you know that crazy old lady next door? She’s got a quite a story, set in Africa, about infidelity and murder and crocodiles. Imagine that!”

“In all my films there is an urge for fiction,” Mr. Gomes said in an interview with Slate. “There is a first part that begs for another film to appear, and it does because of our common desire.” I’d say he’s accomplished about half of that goal, twice over. While watching “Tabu,” I kept waiting for another film to appear, a more interesting, more subtle and complex, more deeply layered film. But it never does. So I guess I’ll move on to the next thing, and keep looking.

Random Notes:

— I enjoyed the relationship between Pilar and the painter more than most anything else in the first half. Though they only have two or three scenes, volumes are communicated between them. She’s lonely, and he wants to be her companion, someone to go to the movies with. She’s not impressed with his art, and he’s awfully sentimental. I think he’s about to propose to her in the scene after the movies. Would she say yes? Maybe, but not because she loves him. Because he’s better than being lonely, and there’s no one else in the picture, nor is there likely to be.

–Gomes’ style and cinematic tricks — especially the opening prologue reminded me of Guy Maddin’s films. But Maddin accomplishes a great deal more in movies like “My Winnipeg” and “Brand Upon the Brain” than Gomes manages here. There’s a method to Maddin’s madness; Gomes is just all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

— A lot of critics have raved about the way “Tabu” pays homage to silent films, in the same way they raved about “The Artist.” last year. But as I said last year, it’s fine to pay homage to a bygone era, but you still have to make a good movie in the meantime. “Tabu” fails in the same way “The Artist” did; both of them just make me want to watch any one of the truly great silent films.

–Throughout the film there are somewhat aggressive hints at race relations – between Santa and Aurora, and between the white colonizers and their African subjects. The film ends with the beginning of the Mozambique revolution. My hunch is that the connection between the two halves was supposed to be sociopolitical, centered on Santa’s relationship with Aurora compared/contrasted to the Africans in colonial Mozambique. But this element always sits on the edges; it never comes front and center the way it needs to. I feel like maybe something got lost in the editing process. That’s just a hunch.

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2 Responses

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  1. nu said

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one these days..

  2. Jack said

    I had no idea why this film had praise by cinephile community. It’s just another standard cliché art film , uninteresting , empty , easily forgettable.

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