‘Tabu’ – forbidden love on MUBI and free on Kanopy

Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (Portugal, 2012), not to be confused with F.W. Murnau’s silent movie classic, almost defies description.

It’s a film split in two parts, the first half set in present-day Lisbon where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) falls into a routine that includes checking in on her elderly, deteriorating upstairs neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral). She calls for a Mr. Ventura in her final moments and Pilar goes in search of him, but it’s too late. As Ventura (Espírito Santo) tells Pilar the story of their past in colonial Africa of the early 1960s, “Paradise Lost” shifts back to “Paradise,” a dream-like remembrance told in voice-over.

It’s a love story: the beautiful young daughter (Ana Moreira) of a plantation owner, married to wealthy Portuguese man and living a privileged but isolated life in a small community of Europeans in Africa, falls for a poor adventurer and musician (Carloto Cotta).

There no dialogue in this impressionistic recall of a lugubrious life out of time where days run into months without a change in routines or even weather, but ambient sound—the echo of footsteps, glasses clinking, people jumping in pools, the winds through trees and bushes—and a soundtrack including Portuguese takes on Phil Spector music) adds to the spell this poetic picture casts.

This black-and-white tone poem is no political statement on colonialism but a hushed tragedy of young, reckless love in an isolated world and rugged landscape far from the social culture the Europeans to try to recreate in their bubble. It’s not the story, however, but the texture and detail and haunting atmosphere that casts its spell, and it is entrancing.

Ivo Müller and Isabel Muñoz Cardoso costar.

Black and white, in Portuguese with English subtitles

Also on DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Tabu [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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