“Tabu,” Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ most recent production, brings to the forefront a portrait of people whose lives are often forgotten and overlooked in films and in life. Told in two parts, “Tabu” focuses these seemingly peculiar yet truly normal individuals, including a retired woman, a maid and a mysterious man. Gomes strings together an abandoned story of the retiree’s past with a bleak view of the present to remind viewers that life simply meanders forward.
The first part of the film, titled “Paradiso Perdido,” is an exact representation of what the title translates to in Portuguese — a Lost Paradise. Set in present day Lisbon, Portugal, “Paradiso Perdido” revolves around the everyday activities of a new retiree, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), and her interactions with her elderly, senile neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is convinced that her maid is out to make her life miserable. Madruga adds slight comic relief to her role as Pilar, employing monotonous facial expressions to appear out of place as she goes about her daily life. However, her persistent deadpanning suggests a truly sad and lonely existence. Aurora’s character brings more vivacity to the melancholy world, but, with her mental episodes and self-destructive indulgences in gambling, Aurora’s life is no paradise either.
Unfortunately, any potential to establish a profound relationship between the two sad characters is lost and unfulfilled, perhaps purposefully, to pervade a feeling of detachment. Whatever the intentions may be, the first part of the film adheres to capturing the solitude of these lonely souls, rendering it rather long and anticlimactic.
When Aurora is on her deathbed, she asks Pilar to fulfill one favor by seeking out a man named Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). Even though it is revealed that Ventura has been deemed mentally unsound, the audience is left to trust the credibility of his memory as he begins to narrate the second part of the film — “Paradiso,” in which he tells the long forgotten story of how his and Aurora’s life intertwined. Ventura takes the film back 50 years, to a village in Africa where an affair developed and failed between the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and young Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta).
Apart from Ventura’s narrations, “Paradiso” is essentially a silent film, with the sounds of the African jungle and various versions of Phil Spector songs comprising the score. By not allowing the audience to hear the dialogue, the director reminds viewers that the tale is simply a memory. This second half of the film is far more fun and engaging than the first half thanks to its use of music, which the first half severely lacks.
However, both halves work together to parallel and balance each other, and are shot in black and white to further convey the idea of recalling a memory. Although the acting and cinematography leave something to be desired, “Tabu’s” real magic is in Gomes’ story and use of subtle stylistic symbols to tell it. The film is odd, the two parts often feel somewhat disconnected and the themes may not be readily fathomable. But with a little patience, “Tabu” is a charming film worth watching.
Rachel Pham is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.