“You will not escape your heart”
There are definite thematic similarities between Miguel Gomes‘ Tabu and F.W. Murnau‘s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from its forbidden love to its descriptions of paradises lost. The structures are even identical—albeit in reverse—showing the joy of romance and the pain of losing it. If I were to compare the black and white Portuguese drama with anything else, however, its predecessor of seventy-years wouldn’t be it. No, the aesthetic my mind kept comparing Gome’s film to was Wes Anderson of all people. The writer/director instills a similar matter-of-fact whimsy to that of his American counterpart whether it’s out-of-the-blue random events and characters or the introduction of extravagant lifestyles portrayed as though universal human experience. Didn’t you guess Ms. Aurora was a big game hunter?
Heck, I didn’t figure Aurora (Laura Soveral) would prove more than the senile old woman we meet through her overly kind neighbor Pilar (Teresa Madruga). Besides an opening poetic prologue about an explorer in the jungle searching for his now deceased love only to get eaten by a crocodile because there was no point going on without her, the film’s first half is all about Pilar. She’s a somewhat lonely middle-aged woman who attends events with her painter friend (Cândido Ferreira), protests the UN with co-workers, houses tourists, and sticks her nose in Aurora’s business because she thinks more must be done than what the woman’s nurse Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) is doing. Aurora’s ranting about witch doctors and blood on her hands is crazy talk, though, right?
It’s a fascinating maneuver by Gomes to introduce Aurora this way and in hindsight the perfect way to do so. Learning about her crazy past first would waste the impact of doing so after knowing her as a certifiably insane senior citizen. There’s no denying that’s what she is either considering we spend fifty minutes watching her short bouts of clarity juxtaposed against longer stints of paranoia believing Santa is trying to kill her on her estranged daughter’s dime. Of course she would latch onto Pilar: a woman blind to a potential lodger ruse out of idealism who actually seeks the girl out again to bestow a present. If anyone would help Aurora without coercion it’s Pilar. But what if the old woman’s “crazy” moments are actually sane?
Aurora is a wild character even in this state—done up in furs and large sunglasses, yelling at Santa or losing all her money at the casino. She’s a hot mess fading in and out of consciousness, in and out of the past and present. We would never believe a word she says because she barely has a grasp on reality let alone her memory. So we latch onto Pilar instead, anointing her as a savior the story has no interest in creating. Little more than our way into Aurora’s past, Pilar is one of the best in-your-face MacGuffins I’ve ever seen. She’s so three-dimensionally rendered before disappearing as the pawn she is that I got mad when “Paradise Lost” turned to “Paradise”. I thought I was duped.
On the contrary, though, Pilar is an integral component that plays conduit to the real saga Gomes wants to share. She’s our unassuming stand-in with soft, compassionate eyes and open ears to discover the same mystery we’ve stumbled upon. It may seem overkill to ultimately supply a prologue that literally lasts half the entire film’s duration, but you do need to understand the now before being able to delve backwards in time. Learning about the past is impossible if not for Pilar finding Gian-Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo)—the object of Aurora’s interest while on her deathbed. It’s through him (and Gomes’ himself playing narrator from that character’s perspective) that Aurora’s amazing life is discovered. He sits us down and tells us everything.
Here’s where Tabu goes even wilder in its storytelling than simply spending an hour on exposition. The second half of the film is told completely from Ventura’s point-of-view as an aging gentleman reaching into his vivid memory banks. By this I mean that we no longer hear any dialogue uttered by the new cast of characters populating his flashback. They include a twenty-something Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a twenty-something Aurora (Ana Moreira), her husband (Ivo Müller), and the trio’s mutual friend Mário (Manuel Mesquita). We hear sound effects and music—at one point Mário’s band does sing—but only silence exits anyone’s mouth via conversation. Gomes’ words layered over the action tell us what’s happening and explain the tragedy that was Gian-Luca and Aurora’s youth.
To speak about any of Ventura’s admissions would be a disservice to Gomes’ expert plotting and subtle revelation explaining how we knew more of Aurora’s life than we thought previous to the vantage switch. It’s an exhilarating transition too as I’ll admit to have found my attention waning around Chapter One’s conclusion. So little was happening besides watching Pilar butt into Aurora and Santa’s business with no apparent end game that I was in desperate need of a jolt of electricity. Who knew it would come in the form of what could be described as the saga’s silent film portion? I wanted to roll my eyes when Ventura’s tale spoke of Aurora’s hunting prowess, her husband’s exotic gifts, or Mário’s soon-to-be famous voice, but I couldn’t.
It felt like a Dos Equis advertisement with so many “cool” details inside their former lives, but like those commercials draw us in with their irreverent humor, Gomes suddenly began subverting our preconceptions of who Aurora was. Nothing was quite as it seemed and there was no ceiling as to how crazy things would get. What follows is a captivating tale of love, betrayal, and murder: one you’d never expect possible while in the midst of Pilar’s ho-hum Lisbon life. It only goes to show how little we know about our elders—family, friends, or otherwise. We rarely ask and they rarely tell because it all happened decades ago in a previous existence. It’s amazing what secrets are right there waiting to be uncovered.