As festival-goers everywhere race to publish their various ‘Best of the Fest’ lists and reviews, readers will do doubt notice a trend beginning to emerge as the majority of these articles make considerable room for Miguel Gomes’ Portuguese epic, Tabu. Mine, perhaps controversially, most definitely will not.
Spread over two parts, the first, “Paradise Lost”, follows the lives of three women over the course of several months: elderly gambling addict Aurora (Laura Soveral), no-nonsense housekeeper Santa (Isabel Cardoso), and lonely landlord Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who is stood up by a deceitful prospective tenant. When Aurora takes ill and requests the presence of a previously private acquaintance, the women track down Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) and drive him to the hospital at which the elderly woman is currently admitted. Along the way, he regales his escorts with the story of his and Portuguese heiress Aurora’s (played in flashback by Ana Moreira) first meeting, their subsequent love affair and the toll it took on their once-strong relationship. It is this story that forms part two of Gomes’ film, subtitled “Paradise”.
Billed as “the ultimate cinephile’s film”, it should come as no surprise that Tabu is the product of a film critic-turned-feature filmmaker. Presented in a black and white, square format, Gomes’ film proceeds to deconstruct traditional narrative by exposing the usual tropes and cliché’s for what they really are. Tabu opens with a film-within-a-film, introducing the first act’s absurdest sense of humour (Aurora goes on at length about a dream she recently had about a hairy monkey) while also foreshadowing the latter half’s African setting and its themes of entitled exploration and tragic romance. As the film changes direction in order to explore the attributing factors behind Aurora’s future self – the would-be inciting incident – a new narrator plays with audience expectations and the nature of narrative itself.
While a case could certainly be made for Tabu‘s status as a film critic’s wet dream, many critics duly waxing lyrical about the director’s ambition and myriad achievements, watching the film itself is an experience almost completely devoid of actual enjoyment. It might simply be that I myself am not the target audience (I didn’t choose @popcornaddict as my twitter handle for nothing), that I wasn’t entirely mindful of the filmmaker’s honorable intentions, but that’s only because the film didn’t sufficiently engage or invite me to care. Yes, the cinematography is striking, the narration gently satirical and the mise-en-scène strewn with imagery, and as a set-text for some esteemed film studies course that might be ample reason to explore the film’s layers of meaning. But I don’t go to the cinema to annotate screen-shots, and as a film Tabu is an over-long, dreadfully paced and decidedly unsatisfying experience.
With each half amusing in its own right, the uncomplimentary combination of the two does little but rob each part of a satisfying arc and test audiences’ patience with an indulgent 118 minute running time. With whole exchanges in the largely silent second part deprived of subtitles or comment, and the characters introduced in the opening hour abandoned without conclusion, you may quickly find yourself asking why you didn’t see something aimed at the casual moviegoer instead. Highbrow cinema at its most uninviting.