Director Miguel Gomes Screenplay Miguel Gomes & Mariana Ricardo Stars Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Henrique Espírito Santo, Carloto Cotta, Isabel Cardoso, Ivo Müller, Manuel Mesquita, Cándido Manuel
Kindly, middle-aged Pilar (Madruga) watches this in Lisbon, towards the end of 2010. Later elderly, moribund Aurora (Soveral) babbles to her long-suffering African maid Santa (Cardoso) and neighbour Pilar about a crocodile and a crime, and asks Pilar to summon Ventura to her deathbed.
Arriving too late, old Ventura (Santo) quietly narrates to Pilar and Santa how, five decades earlier in Africa, his younger self (Cotta) and pregnant Aurora (Moreira) began an adulterous relationship, initiated by the loss of Aurora’s pet crocodile. This story, like Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, from which it refashions its opening line (“She had a farm in Africa…”), uses the appealing sweep of a doomed personal romance to smuggle in politics.
Borrowing not only the title of F.W. Murnau’s last film Tabu (1931), but also its Academy ratio, its black-and-white presentation, and even its division into sections headed ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ (here inverted), Miguel Gomes’ film is so deliriously outmoded in its form that its narrative’s eventual journey into times past finds a vivid parallel in the history of cinema itself—that great repository of twentieth-century imagination and memory.
Originally shot as a half-talkie, Murnau’s film was released as a full silent—and silence also dominates Gomes’ Tabu. Not that it actually is silent; on the contrary, the Lisbon scenes include abundant spoken dialogue, and even Ventura’s memoir, though suppressing characters’ actual speech, features a persistent voice-over narration, synchronised ambient sounds and even an epistolary exchange between the lovers (read aloud by the actors). Yet in telling his tale, Ventura is breaking a silence that has been maintained for half a century, revealing a shameful secret that is as much his nation’s as his own.
For Ventura’s tale (taking place in the shadow of the fictitious Mt Tabu) brings to light not just this illicit romance, but also the imbalances of Portuguese colonialism. Though constantly visible serving Aurora or working in the plantations, native Africans barely receive a mention in Ventura’s account, and Aurora’s male cook, the only local ‘character’ shown (if not heard) speaking, is promptly fired. Yet if the natives are kept to the margins, the lovers’ story unfolds against a background of (quiet) unrest that culminates in a slyly different, if equally fictionalised, version of events, broadcast over the radio in an (audibly) African voice, that heralds the outbreak of open rebellion. For in this tricksy modernist melodrama, Portugal’s present is rooted in the past, and her future is an African maid learning to speak Portuguese. Ineffably good.