“The island of Bora-Bora: still untouched by the hand of civilization”
It’s a “Romeo and Juliet” by way of French Polynesia to be commended first and foremost for its use of island natives as cast and crew (the latter a result of cost-saving efforts not-withstanding). Conceived by F.W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty as a reprieve from the pressures of studio pictures, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas was born as a collaboration before an irreparable fracture gave the former full control once production got under way. Murnau chose to shoot silent despite sound’s prevalence and his use of black and white was once again due to budget constraints. Neither choice provides a handicap, though, with Floyd Crosby‘s Oscar-winning cinematography engaging us in their timeless tale of forbidden love and the vengeful Gods making it so.
Chapter One finds us in the midst of a happy-go-lucky Bora-Bora community of young men and women having fun amongst the waterfalls of their surroundings. Matahi rises above the rest as lead character and perhaps local idol, fearlessly sliding into a hoard of girls with a smile. Reri (Anne Chevalier) is the object of his affection above the rest, though, and she returns those feelings. But before they can grow their relationship a ship carrying the emissary of their religion’s highest authority arrives with news. Their virgin—a sacred vessel with great significance in their culture—has passed away and a replacement must be anointed. It just so happens that Reri is their selection and Hitu has come to take her. Preventing him means death for all.
That’s right—even though the spelling is odd—the title is clearly setting the stage for what we know as taboo. Rather than simply forbidding discussion on a subject or association, however, this “tabu” is more a representation of guilt. Tabu means forbidden but the consequences for disregarding such go far beyond a gasp or excommunication. To stop Reri from reaching her appointed post whether by not letting her board Hitu’s vessel or by helping her lose her virginity is to acquire a death sentence for you, her, and the emissary tasked to ensure her purity. It’s a barbaric custom, but one these people have adhered to for centuries. So while folks will obviously be searching, Reri’s own guilt through failing to uphold her obligation plays a factor too.
Chapter Two leaves these conservative rites and rituals so beautifully immortalized by Crosby’s lens to resituate us miles away atop another island more progressive in terms of its religious rules. Because the “old Gods” aren’t as strictly followed, it provides a perfect escape for Matahi and Reri if they stay under the radar. More than going against their peoples’ traditions, taking up residence in a modern world also means an introduction to money and its power. Fortune can make a man as quick as ruin him and manipulating foreigners in order to take advantage of their kindness is a thousand-francs-a head racket. Love soon becomes too much to risk as Matahi and Reri both move to preserve the other’s well being at the expense of their own.
Murnau and Flaherty’s script doesn’t necessarily provide anything new or fresh as much as repurpose it for an exotic people audiences in 1931 would know next to nothing about (heck, I don’t know anything about them now). The first draft under the name Turia was most likely a bit more abstract in terms of its spirituality and what opposing the Gods earns, but Murnau took it upon himself to rewrite it with a more straight-forward plot progression (a decision Flaherty was very much against). The result is a conventional path from A to B with the usual forks as far as enemies, risks, and romance. It’ll either end happily ever after or disastrously bad—kudos to the filmmakers for not tipping their hand until that final frame.
For a group of amateurs you have to also give a round of applause to the performers all plucked from Tahiti during scouting sessions. Matahi and Reri are exuberant innocents we feel for as their love is ripped away to force them to leave everything behind and go on the run. Hitu is wonderfully hardened, a stoic taskmaster who exudes disapproval with nothing but his eyes. He’s almost so stone-faced silent that it borders on hilarity, but Murnau never lets us forget the stakes and therefore never underestimate this religious figure’s strength. Bill Bambridge as the second act’s local policeman Jean and Chinese lender Fong Ah add nice periphery players as well—effusive and kind when things are going well and ruthless when time to collect.
But the most impressive feature of Tabu has to be its synchronized score by Hugo Riesenfeld. Not only does the tempo and melody match the action whether it’s adventure, suspense, comedy, or drama, but he marks movements and speech with instrument flourishes throughout. Rather than give us intertitles—the only ones included are to show us writings to be read—the characters talk and out of their mouths comes a lone horn warbling a la “Peanuts”. The synergy of this is astounding and I never once felt confused about what was going on. Murnau and Flaherty deftly put all the exposition we’ll ever need on official documents blown up onscreen, placing us where we need to be as the action continues in the sand.
And despite the true love romance, I can’t help but love how darkly shrouded any joy is from start to finish. Whether it’s the optimistic promise of a happy life being squashed in the next frame or the omens of other taboo taking lives and risking more, this is definitely not a light and breezy affair. Right from the start someone is going to die whether it be Reri for her betrayal, Hitu for his failure, or Matahi of a broken heart. As an audience we hope it’s the middle choice because we want these kids to have the life we want as well. But what does that mean for us to cheer for Hitu’s death? Tabu ultimately proves a simple story with grave consequences.