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Tabu de Miguel Gomes

December 30, 2012

In the first scene of Tabu by Miguel Gomes we meet an explorer in colonial Africa, he has chosen this dangerous destination – so informs us the half serious half humorous voice-over – to forget the love he lost in Portugal, his failure will become the stuff of legend. Five minutes into Tabu we discover that the explorer’s story was only a prologue – and maybe a film watched by Pilar, the main character of the next story – and captions tell us we are now going to see the first part of the feature, its title: A Lost Paradise. We are back in Lisbon and in our century, Pilar is a middle-aged Lisbonian woman and she looks like a model citizen of the European Union: she is well-educated, she hosts young people visiting Lisbon, she participates to rallies for human rights, her aspiring boyfriend is a painter and she helps the old lady living next door. Alas Pilar’s life – just like the streets of Lisbon that we see – is bored and boring: the Polish girl coming to Lisbon for the Taizé meeting prefers to stay elsewhere, the paintings of her lover are ugly modern art and – as we are going soon to discover in the second part of the film – the old lady next door has lived – and perhaps is still living – a far more exciting and adventurous life; to experience a thrilling story Pilar has to go to the movies, her neighbor lived a movie story for real. The name of the old lady is Aurora, her younger self is the star of the second part of the film: Paradise, we are back in colonial Africa – an unspecified location of what at the time was the Portuguese Empire.

Pilar at the rally

Writing about films – or about works of art tout court – always implies the risk of misunderstanding what we have seen/read, there is an interesting essay by Umberto Eco on interpretation and overinterpretation, caution should be the constant companion of the reviewer especially when he is facing intricate and rich work by an artist of another culture, in my opinion Gomes’ Tabu requires a lot of caution. A.O. Scott of the New York Times is one of my favorite critics but his review of Tabu completely misunderstands the film: Tabu is a film about love, not about colonialism, but at the same time colonialism is part of the story of countries like Portugal – this country had an empire once, now it’s a member of PIGS – so I guess an artist from Portugal has the right to feature elements from the colonial era in his work, it’s part of his cultural and imaginative background (Gomes’ mother was born in Angola, but the director says they never talked about it, the argument was tabu). Though at the time of Aurora’s love story the Portuguese colonies were on the road to rebellion, the Africans’ role in the Paradise section of the film is the one of the spectators, Africa here is a reverie – Paradise is nothing but the memories of an old man, Gian Luca. Tabu is a film about le fatum de l’amour (© Nicolas Bauche of Positif), in Murnau’s Tabu the lovers who had violated the tabu escaped from Bora Bora and searched refuge in a European colony, to them western modernity seemed the only way to escape the rules of tabu, but the love between Aurora and Gian Luca will suffer the same fate than the one between Reri and Matahi: colonizers and colonized cannot escape the force of tabu (divorce for Catholic marriages became legal in Portugal only in 1975).

Reri and Matahi

Gian Luca and Aurora







At the same time the scenery where Gomes places his film is a musing on the Portugal and European Union of today: a bored and boring place – just like Pilar’s life – which idolizes too much its past and lacks the courage and the stamina to face the challenges of the future. Tabu viceversa has a lot of cinematic stamina, Gomes has made many original choices: we have three films in Tabu, the funny and sad short of the prologue, the art-house like of Lost Paradise and the ingenious docu-fiction of Paradise (the fading memories of Gian Luca are aptly shot in 16 mm) and their combination is constantly haunted by the enigmatic presence of a crocodile, whose symbolic role manifests the mythical nature of the film. If you retain I am overinterpretating, feel free to comment!

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