Sunday, 7 October 2012


Well, I'm still chasing my first 5 cheese-r of the year, and with one of the most lauded films of the year and off an excellent reception in Berlin, I had high hopes for Miguel Gomes' Tabu. It looked dreamy, magical, surreal, a modern fairytale and reminiscent of The Artist for its bold black and White imagery and memorable soundtrack. And Tabu actually did achieve something for me - but it wasn't my longed for top scoring of the year. Instead it managed to surprisingly grab biggest crushing disappointment.

The film is split into two halves, with reverse chronology: the first - Paradise Lost - focuses on the lives of two elderly women, the able, sociable, and pious Miss Pilar (Teresa Madruga) who lives next door to the melodramatic, reckless and increasingly ill Miss Aurora (Laura Soverel). Both women are single, and whilst Miss Pilar is courted by an eager artist, Miss Aurora spends the majority of her time with her carer Santa, and bemoaning her daughter who has moved away from Portugal and her mother to Canada and has become distant because of her new family. It is set in the modern day, with Gomes shooting in colour 35mm and the characters speak, shout and whisper to one another. Though we are told the story through Pilar's eyes, it is clear the main protagonist here is Miss Aurora, whose health deteriorates to the point of nonsensical babbling about Africa and crocodiles and asking to see a man whom Pilar and Santa assume is just another one of her feverish ramblings - until he turns out to be very much alive. As Aurora passes away, it's the old man's turn to take over narration as we switch to the second half of the film - Paradise - and with that, Gomes also changes to a 16mm black and white frame and strips all the dialogue out to a silent, and we are transported back to 1950s Colonial Africa, to the foothills of Mount Tabu, where a young Miss Aurora (Ana Moreira) begins a passionate affair with a young man, Ventura (Carloto Cotta) - who of course is the old man telling the story. Aurora is happily married to a doctor and pregnant with their first child, but she cannot resist the attraction she has for Ventura, who is handsome, charming and plays in a band with her husband's good friend Mario. As they become more involved, the stakes get higher and the arrival of the baby looms - the two decide to runaway together but the ill-judged decision will end in tragedy and heartbreak for both.

I was so disappointed with this - it felt distinctly average, and I kept waiting for the magic to kick in and bring the story and the characters to life, but the limpness rung out until the end. I found the first half more promising and engaging than the second due to its subtleties, but why focus on Pilar the neighbour? I was waiting for some connection to Aurora to be revealed - not as clumsy as being related, but something central and deep-rooted. But there was none - save for the tenuousness of Pilar crying in the cinema as the film plays out the song "Be My Baby" - the song a young Aurora weeps to as it's performed by Ventura's band.

Both halves focus on Aurora, but through the eyes of other characters: Pilar is anxious about her loneliness and increasing delusions, and in the second half Ventura's laddish lifestyle is tamed by his great love for her, and his despair that she is married and about to have a child with another man. Both care deeply about this woman which I find impossible to accept as she is steely and selfish and someone I hold no affection for whatsoever. I was not intrigued by the older Aurora claiming to have "blood on her hands" (why does she shoot Mario anyway, in an overly dramatic second half climax?) and I am not invested in these lovers, whose epic romance just seems dull and sensationalised to me.  A simple forbidden love story told in a different way, but in order to propel it you need engaging characters to carve out an emotion for the film - is it charming? Is it romantic? Is it tragic? Is it magical? I didn't feel any of these things. The worst reaction you can have with a film is it just being so-so, and worrying when the best character is a crocodile (but he really was a cute little thing and I sort of want one as a pet now... as long as it's tiny and only bites sticks).

For positives, it's well directed and imagined by Gomes, with beautiful arty cinematography by Rui Pocas in Africa, reminding me a lot of The River Used To Be A Man, with its remote setting and supernatural ambiance, but it fails to sparkle amidst unlikeable characters and a plot which zig-zags in tone but forgets to engage.

I looked at my phone a few times which is never a good sign. I was never truly bored, but then it only just held my attention. Tabu is certainly not one I'll be paying a revisit to, unless someone can tell me what I'm missing here please, to make this so adored?

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