Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes, 2012

Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes, 2012 Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ new film Tabu opens with the tale of an intrepid explorer. Unable to escape the ghost of his widow, who keeps appearing no matter how far he treks through the heart of Africa, he throws himself to the crocodiles in desperation. Afterwards, many swear to have seen a melancholic crocodile accompanying a lady from times gone by. While not directly tied to the plot that follows, this little film-within-a-film introduces the exotic romance and ironic absurdity that counter-balance Tabu, in which the heart is the most dangerous, uncontrollable force there is, and in which time condemns us to loss and nostalgia.
“It’s almost Gothic; it’s not a thing of nowadays,” said Gomes of this opening tale, when AnOther met with him in London. The rest of the film, he said, “is a way to get us there; to this doomed love that travels through time.”
In the first part (Paradise Lost) we’re in present-day Lisbon – a place of uneasy ineffability. The elderly Aurora is under the eye of her neighbour Pilar, who is concerned she’s slipping into senility (gambling all her money away at the casino, ranting about blood on her hands and making wild witchcraft accusations against her maid). On being hospitalised, she hands Pilar a slip of paper with an address, begging her to summon a man called Gian Luca Ventura. When he arrives, the film jumps back in time for part two (Paradise) – and from 35mm to luminous 16mm – as Ventura narrates the tale of his youthful, illicit love affair with Aurora in a Portuguese colony in Africa.
For all the film’s tricky construction and self-conscious irony, its enchantment is in the vivid, raw desire captured in its second part – all the more strongly because we know it’s now gone. “It’s about things that disappear,” said the director. “All this melancholy comes through, because you see young bodies but an old voice telling the story. They’re young people doing sexy things like in a Hollywood film but at the same time they are ghost people that are already dead, or about to die.”
"They’re young people doing sexy things like in a Hollywood film but at the same time they are ghost people that are already dead..."
The image of the melancholy crocodile was prompted by this nostalgia for bygone moments. “Crocodiles look very ancient; they seem as if they come from prehistoric times,” said Gomes. “As they are so old they must remember things that people have now forgotten. There is a connection between this crocodile and time and memory: the memory of lovers that get together and break up; and of colonial empires that are built and fall down. Nature is like a witness to all the craziness of the heart.”
Gomes shot the second part in a remote location in Mozambique – and recalled that the real reptiles used had been privy to the inexplicable side of human behaviour. “One of the few white people there was this very strange priest that looked a little like he was out of Apocalypse Now or something. He was in charge of some black kids, and had built a fortress; he had Doberman dogs, lots of guns, a coffin in his bedroom and snakes inside. We thought he was creepy and not very trustworthy, but we still borrowed his crocodiles.”
While the film treats the delusion of a colonial paradise ironically, Gomes says he was determined to be honest with the characters’ passions at the same time: “I didn’t want to betray them; to condemn them for living in this regime. I think cinema is connected like a battery, with its negative and opposite positive terminal. If you have irony and in the same amount passion toward the emotions of the characters, then there is electricity.”
Tabu's title and its two part construction reference and invert the structure of F. W. Murnau’s 1931 split-chapter film of the same name, also about two fated lovers in a far-flung colony. But for Gomes, the use of this highly inventive curio is not so much designed to imitate the earlier classic but rather to recapture past cinematic magic: “Murnau for me stands as a symbol for silent film and cinema in general - the idea of how cinema can get you to another place.”
Tabu is released in the UK on September 7. - Text by Carmen Gray