A prologue, long first section, long second section – with only the middle part having sync sound. Bookend segments have spoken narration and certain (probably dubbed/foleyed) sound effects from the scene and seem better/more magical than the talkie half of the movie.
1. In Africa, depressed widower colonialist hurls himself into the crocodile-infested river. “You may run as far as you can, for as long as you like, but you will not escape your heart.”
Ghost of the colonialist’s dead wife:
2. In Lisbon, aging activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga of Silvestre) would seem to be our main character, but the possibly-senile gambling-addicted woman next door takes up much of her attention and curiosity. Aurora isn’t so nice to her maid Santa, is never visited by her children, who support her via a monthly check. Aurora takes a bad turn and sends Pilar to find a man called Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo, a producer of Doomed Love and Magic Mirror) who arrives too late. After the funeral, he has lunch with Pilar and Santa, begins to tell them his story, after which we never see anyone from the movie’s first half again.
Aurora and Ventura:
3. We spend a year in Mozambique, with month-by-month title cards. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira of Teresa Villaverde’s films) was a famed hunter, a lone wolf who finally married, but soon started an affair with neighbor Ventura (Carloto Cotta, who played Father Dinis’s father as a young man in Mysteries of Lisbon).
Aurora and Ventura:
Their affair gets more passionate and reckless, until finally they run away and she kills the man who discovers them together. She’s dragged back to her husband. Ventura tries to claim that he shot the man, but an anti-colonialist movement takes credit for the murder, so they’re both off the hook – but they never see each other again.
Gomes, even from his earliest shorts (which he’s dubbed musical comedies, though the music is generally piped in rather than sung, the humor dry as a bone, rather than broad) has evinced a willingness to prioritize images over dialogue, songs over the spoken word, and, above all, has maintained a sense of play entirely his own. … Tabu steals its name and chapter titles from the mystical South Pacific feature directed by F.W. Murnau, another filmmaker in thrall to the magic of movies, and produced by Robert Flaherty, the other guiding pole of Gomes’s cinema. That he’s reversed the trajectory of that earlier film, moving from “Paradise Lost” to “Found” suggests that this new Tabu is up to more than just simple homage.
He plays in a band, she listens on the radio, both crying
This is a film in which a sullen colonialist transforms into a reptile in a tone-setting prelude. This is a film that answers its hour’s worth of affectingly humdrum urban drama with a lulling, marvelous, deeply dreamy backend. Yet Tabu’s surrealism—like its romance, its comedy, its historicism, its everything—is retained with a light touch. For all its wistfulness, Tabu never feels like a formalist, postmodern, post-cinema put-on. Gomes never feels like he’s trying to pull anything off. And so, in turn, he manages to pull everything off.
Pilar and Santa:
I think I make films to play music. For instance, Tabu starts with Pilar watching a movie. But that sequence was only put at the beginning in the editing room. That story of the explorer and the ghost was like a radio soap that Aurora was doing. I shot her in the studio doing Foley effects (sounds synched to the action) and the sequence was supposed to come in the second part of the film. I didn’t know where, because we didn’t have a script for the second part. I shot many sequences not knowing if they would fit in the film or which part they would fit into. In fact, when Pilar was going to the cinema—and in the script, she went three times, in the film only two—it was intended that you would never see the screen but would hear a song. Maybe this is my emotional link with cinema, that I wanted to materialize it by not showing whatever Pilar is seeing, only portraying it as a song. For me as a viewer of cinema and a listener to music, I wanted to have the same response to the sequence as I would if I were hearing a great song, not being moved by the lyrics but by a more abstract feeling one has in response to music.