There are two types of shots that show up in Tabu with some regularity. The static shot with the main subject virtually immobile while activity bustles around them, and the tracking shot moving along with a character, almost struggling to keep pace. For a film split into two parts this dichotomy couldn’t be more apt. It seems to be the best representation of the themes as well as the films two halves. Time lived and time lost. Passion and the passionless. This unique and stylish film is difficult to categorize, but this is its essence.
After a melancholic prologue concerning an intrepid explorer, Tabu reveals itself to be about a middle-aged woman, Pilar, living in modern day Portugal. Pilar isn’t all that interesting. She’s tragically boring. She’s dating a would-be artist she can barely stand and she tries to pass the time by involving herself in various causes. These early scenes flirt a bit too much with tedium but there’s a strange sardonic tone that keeps things moving. One interesting thing in Pilar’s life is her melodramatic neighbor Aurora. This borderline senile lady is the same type of character found in apartment complexes the world over. She’s paranoid, full of tall tales, and all alone. With her abundance of empathy, Pilar tries to help Aurora during her final days.
A long buried secret about Aurora is revealed and the film magically transforms its style, genre, and time period. This new half is set in Africa at the dawn of the Portuguese colonial war. The film gains a narrator and loses its soundtrack. It becomes a semi-silent picture. The camera work is now more intense and heightened as we learn about young Aurora and her misadventures. I’ll leave the details of these exploits for you to discover but I will say it is some of the most classically romantic filmmaking in some time. By itself, this section bleeds both tragedy and desire. It brilliantly captures the numerous reasons life is worth living including music, sex, cinema, love, and memory.
But put into context with the “lost paradise” of the first half, and Tabu transcends. It completely overhauls everything you thought about the movie. It attains poignancy while maintaining the aura of a fable. It’s a film with its head in the clouds but a pragmatic heart. It’s a hell of a trick especially considering how unsure I was of the film as it unfolded. There’s nothing better than being caught off guard while watching a movie. Find it, see it, and stick with it until you’re picking the pieces of your heart off the floor.