“Tabu” — Portuguese director Michael Gomes’ newest tale — begins with an explorer on an African expedition in the 19th century. On no clear path, the man appears to be searching aimlessly. Filmed entirely in gorgeous black and white, in conjunction with the voyager’s lack of direction, the haunting opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of this foreboding film, which is about life and how we often amble along listlessly within it.
Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a woman who appears to be living without purpose; yet she does find value in her mysterious neighbor, an elderly woman named Aurora (Laura Soreval), and her maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Aurora’s relationship with Santa is a curious one. At one point, she accuses the African caretaker of witchcraft and calls her a black witch. However, there is an underlying fondness between the two, which is never truly explored and left for the viewer to piece together.
Their narrative moves extremely slowly and the plot doesn’t truly unfold until Aurora falls terminally ill. Before she passes on, however, she has Pilar send for a man from her past, Gian Luco Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). More is learned about Pilar and Ventura’s relationship through an engrossing flashback that takes place in a Portuguese colony of Africa where a young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and her husband (Ivo Muller) once lived.
Spoken mostly in Portuguese, some of the most powerful scenes had no dialogue. This was a smart move on Gomes’ part as the viewer has no choice but to pay close attention to the emotions conveyed on screen, making “Tabu” more of a cerebral experience than an emotional one. Another good decision made by Gomes was to shoot part one in 34mm and the second in 16 – the latter giving the picture a more intimate feel.
As for the film as a whole, I was certainly more captivated by the second half than the first. But even though I struggled through Act I of “Tabu,” I remained patient, as should you. For what we see transpire through Aurora’s memories of her time in paradise is both beautiful and tragic. And the film’s end more than makes up for what few flaws there were in the beginning.
“Tabu,” which won the FIPRESCI Jury Prize and Alfred Beaur Prize for Artistic Innovation at the Berlin Film Festival, opens Jan. 25 at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
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