In Tabu, a haunting new film by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, a human-rights activist named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) prays to Anthony of Lisbon, the patron saint of lost items and lost spirits. She’s trying to help her elderly neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has just lost all of her money at a casino and seems be losing her mind as well.
The old woman recounts a dream starring a crocodile, some angry monkeys, a train-ticket machine that turns into a slot machine, and someone muttering, “Lucky at gambling, unlucky at love.” This story sounds bonkers, but it turns out to be rooted in reality. The real question involves who – or what – has truly been lost.
Gomes divides Tabu into two main sections, one set in present-day Lisbon and the other in one of Portugal’s African colonies, about 50 years earlier. The former, titled “Paradise Lost,” illustrates Pilar’s banal routine, which involves going to the movies and slogging through dates with a man she doesn’t love. At one point, Pilar’s companion gets so bored that he falls asleep at the cinema, causing her to cry.
“Paradise,” Tabu‘s latter section, brims with danger, beauty and romance. Aurora, then a gorgeous young newlywed (Ana Moreira), hunts big game amid jungle plants and tall savannah grasses. While pregnant, she has a love affair with a handsome adventurer named Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Meanwhile, tensions mount between the colonists and natives, portending what will soon become the Portuguese Colonial War. Aurora sports a fearless, almost masculine personality, which is palpable even though there’s no dialogue in this section.
While the characters are silent, sounds such as pebbles landing in a pool and a Portuguese version of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” give the narrative a dreamlike quality. But, as the elder Aurora notes early in the film, dreams cannot be controlled. They’re inherently risky. They can be playgrounds for guilt, which, in Aurora’s case, stretches far beyond the borders of adultery.
Tabu‘s stunning black-and-white images reference both the silent-film era and the French New Wave movement, and a fairy tale of sorts emerges from the poetic anecdotes present-day Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) shares with Pilar in a cafe flanked by tropical plants and a children’s ride that looks like a crocodile.
But Tabu isn’t just any fairy tale; it’s more of an allegory. This becomes clear in its film-within-a-film prologue, in which an explorer dives into the jaws of a crocodile, despite his culture’s disapproval of suicide, because he can’t bear losing his beloved. Aurora is like the explorer, hunting for riches. She ventures boldly into wild, unknown places but virtually ignores the native people who tend to her needs. And despite her strength, she’s irreparably damaged when her lover vanishes. The crocodile, which appears throughout the film, seems to represent her downfall, or her decision to break a taboo at her own peril. As the prologue’s narrator intimates, the bravest soul can’t escape an aching heart, even if he can stomach a guilty conscience.