If you didn’t know that Portuguese writer-director Miguel Gomes wrote film criticism before he started making movies, you’d probably figure it out within the first few minutes of his 2012 drama Tabu, which the Chicago Cinema Society screens this Sunday and Monday at the Patio Theater. The title is a direct reference to F.W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), and the movie opens with a ten-minute prologue that invokes the earlier work. Murnau’s film—an innovative mix of ethnographic documentary and expressionist melodrama—was made during the transitional period between silent and sound filmmaking, and Gomes approximates the soundtracks of that era. The prologue contains neither dialogue nor direct sound, but there are some post-sync sound effects and a musical score that’s tied to the on-screen action.
Murnau’s Tabu, shot mainly in the then-French colony of Bora Bora, was inspired by a South Seas legend that documentarian Robert Flaherty (who worked on the script) discovered during his time in Tahiti. In brief, it relates the doomed romance between a native islander and a girl who, selected as a gift to the gods, is not to be touched by mortal men. Gomes’s narrative centers not on a native but on a colonialist, a Portuguese explorer who’s been sent to Africa on a surveying mission sometime in the 19th century. (Like the longer African story that comes later in the film, the prologue was shot in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique.) Gomes’s story isn’t based on legend, but it might as well be: in it the explorer is visited by the ghost of his dead wife, who comes to haunt the savannah with a live crocodile.
Gomes isn’t out to parody his model. The fastidious re-creation of Murnau’s style conveys an obvious reverence toward his filmmaking, and the performances never register as camp; they achieve the emotional directness of silent-movie acting and bring a sense of pathos to the silly story. Heightening the preposterousness of Murnau’s melodrama, while nonetheless playing it straight, the prologue communicates a profound ambivalence toward its point of reference, which sets the stage for the rest of Tabu. Ultimately it becomes clear that Gomes’s subject isn’t Murnau but Portuguese colonialism—and that he’s using the former as a means of meditating on the latter.
After the prologue, however, nearly an hour passes before Tabu explicitly addresses either subject again. The first of the film’s two chapters—titled “Paradise Lost,” after the second half of Murnau’s Tabu—takes place in present-day Lisbon between Christmas and January 2 and concerns a single middle-aged professor named Pilar. Not much happens during this section; the most dramatic development is that Aurora, an elderly neighbor whom Pilar looks after like a family member, begins to lose her wits. Pilar wants to take Aurora for psychiatric treatment, but suddenly the old woman dies.
Though light on plot, “Paradise Lost” casts a powerful spell. In contrast to the prologue, which Gomes shot on 16-millimeter, this portion is shot on luminous 35-millimeter (though still in black-and-white) and features a dense soundtrack with direct-sound dialogue. Cinematographer Rui Poças achieves some captivating, expressionist-style chiaroscuro effects and shoots many of the scenes in balletic dolly shots that create a feeling of narrative momentum even if little is happening. Like the African savannah of the prologue, Lisbon seems to be haunted, but by history rather than the supernatural. At one point Pilar tours a cave that’s legendary for having once been a hideout for Roman and Moorish imperialists; she also spends an evening researching genocide in Africa for an activist committee to which she belongs. Aurora’s African servant improbably spends her free time immersed in a translation of Robinson Crusoe in order to teach herself Portuguese. And Aurora frequently confuses her dreams of the past with contemporary reality.
At the film’s halfway point, the specter of history envelops Tabu altogether. On her death bed, Aurora requests to see a long-estranged friend named Ventura and provides Pilar with an address where she can track him down. Pilar fails to reunite the two before Aurora dies, but she spends time with the old man after the funeral and learns of his doomed love affair with Aurora in Africa in the early 1960s. Like the prologue, his story plays out in the style of an early sound film, with Ventura narrating the action. This sudden transition is the film’s most striking effect. In a few shots Gomes seems to fulfill the unspoken longing of “Paradise Lost” by renouncing obscure realism for straightforward romanticism. When the title “Paradise” heralds the start of the second chapter—over the image of a beautiful Portuguese manor in 60s Africa—it transcends irony.
Ventura reveals that Aurora grew up on a plantation in one of Portugal’s colonies. Her story is the stuff of high fiction: trained as a marksman at an early age, she becomes world-famous as a big-game hunter and even serves as consultant on a (fictitious) Hollywood romance called “It Will Never Snow Again Over Kilimanjaro.” She marries a handsome Portuguese man with a plantation of his own, and they become prominent figures in colonial high society. Gomes draws attention to the story’s melodramatic nature through Ventura’s deliberately ripe narration (“After getting married, Aurora’s taste for adventure was merely dormant, numbed by the lavish gifts that livened up her routine existence”).
A romantic archetype himself, Ventura turns out to be a world-traveling dandy who has come to Africa on a lark. After landing an administrative job, he too enters into society, and eventually he and Aurora begin a secret romance. Gomes frequently undercuts the ultracinematic love story with sobering images of African servants working the plantations; they hint at the widespread discontent that would spark revolutionary wars throughout the Portuguese colonies in the 1960s. These wars lasted for over a decade, ending when the Carnation Revolution of 1974 brought down Portugal’s fascist government after nearly five decades and the new state liberated the colonies.
As Aurora and Ventura’s affair heats up, they try unsuccessfully to suppress their feelings for each other. At the same time, in another case of repressed history exploding into the present, a native insurrection plunges the society into civil war. Aurora and Ventura flee to a neighboring country, where they hope to begin a new life, but a friend of Ventura’s finds them and tries to bring them home. In a fit of madness, Aurora shoots him dead. Ironically, some rebel soldiers take responsibility for the killing, clearing her name even as they intensify the war.
Murnau’s influence is most evident during these passages. In the earlier Tabu the lovers also flee a hostile environment, seeking refuge in a nearby island governed by Western colonials. They are exploited by white businessmen and ultimately found out by one of their tribesmen, who arrives to reclaim the girl. Gomes inverts the story by having his white lovers escape from colonial civilization into a more primitive environment, but he retains Murnau’s dark romanticism.
In so doing, he finds what his contemporary story lacks: adventure, passion, and above all a sense of consequence. Pilar may be responsible and informed, but she seems incapable of experiencing romance as Aurora once did. Similarly, the present-day images in “Paradise Lost” may be richer and more immediate with their direct sound, but they’re no match for the gorgeous landscapes and expressive performances of “Paradise.” Without denying the devastating impact of Portuguese colonialism, Gomes acknowledges that it fed the colonials’ desire to experience life as the stuff of myth. In this regard, colonialism had much in common with cinema, enabling people to remake the world according to their own fantasies. Those fantasies may have died out, but Tabu unsettlingly suggests that they continue to haunt the Portuguese, who have yet to find a comparable dream to take their place in the imagination.