Evasive, suggestive and yet visually stunning, Miguel Gomes’ 2012 Tabu, this haunting dream of a movie dealing with memory and loss, inserts itself deep into the human soul, forcing us to ask: When is a person really seen for who they are and not for who they are perceived to be?
The weird beauty of young Aurora’s pet crocodile on the movie’s poster sets a hypnotic and yet appropriate mood for Tabu, Miguel Gomes’ beautiful film. For the story points to our pasts – perhaps, even beyond ourselves – and reaches the essence of what it means to remember. Where is the core of Aurora to be found? In the slightly paranoid old woman or the young and adventurous beauty? Time – inexorable and ruthless – transforms certainties. Traits that once seemed charming in youth acquire a sinister nature later in life. What in the past seemed cowardice, now might seem reasonable prudence.
The film has three parts. Setting the mood, aesthetically and thematically, the Prologue tells a little tale (disconnected from the main story and yet totally relevant to it) of a melancholic Portuguese explorer in 19th Century Africa. In ‘Paradise Lost’, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who lives in Lisbon, occupies her lonely time worrying about her elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral). On her death-bed, Aurora instructs Pilar to find Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who once had been the love of her life. Aurora dies before Ventura can see her again, but he then narrates their story. In ‘Paradise’, in the 1960s, somewhere in colonial Africa, young Aurora (Ana Moreira), married and pregnant, falls in love with the handsome Gian Luca. Their forbidden love eventually ends as Aurora gives birth and is forcefully reunited with her husband.
It’s somewhat disconcerting to think that every single one of us is (probably most of the time) misunderstood by everyone else. In fact, what chance have other people of interpreting our actions and words accurately, if even ourselves – with all the first-hand knowledge and information – fall rather short of making sense of our reasons and motivations? We, lonely atoms, are indeed complex islands in a vast ocean of assumptions? This is how I see Aurora’s life in the intervening years between her youth (highlighted by her love affair with Gian Luca in a foreign land) and her death. Perhaps, even the period of her life before she went to live in Africa also had been in utter isolation.
..Castaways in Time and Space…
As gurus of different stripes keep warning us against dwelling for too long in the past, I suppose one should live fully in the present, where true happiness exists. Well, what if happiness is indeed only for children and lovers? Grow-ups, aware of betrayal and bitterness, have no real stake at being happy, beyond those few flitting moments of contentment and joy we all eventually encounter in daily life. This might be a cynical and gloomy perspective, but it has the advantage of preparing us for the countless disappointments we’ll all endure in life. New Age living and self-improvement teachings might fail to assuage the typical anxiety of modern society, making everyone more miserable than before.
How do we dare then telling others to not dwell in the past, when for some people the past is the only thing they have left? Memory of our pasts and the time spent on those little reminders of who we are are essential for a healthy life, lived in the present. In fact, there seems to be an essential contradiction at play in modern mores. As people are told to live the present, to get up if they fall, brush off the dust and start over, there is also a trend of confronting our fears inherited from our childhoods. There seems to be this mixed message that command us not to let the past dictate our future, and yet it also tells us to try and understand the past in order to liberate us from subconscious trappings.
Philosophically speaking the past is everywhere, omnipotent and omnipresent, all around us, represented by everything that exists. Who are we if not the result of past choices? What is interesting is that even during the peak of Aurora’s affair with Gian Luca, when she seemed totally in the present, happy to be where she was, and with whomever she was with, she was surrounded by objects, customs, and more importantly, sociocultural attitudes, all from her past life in Portugal. Then as usual, time obliterates every single residue of that past life, Back in her homeland, she grows old, and the past really becomes like a foreign country where they indeed do things differently there.
And yet we’re all attached to this foreign nation. Even though our past selves feel like the illegal immigrants of nowadays – unwanted and unnecessary – they are the ones building all the bridges between our sense of identity and our present surroundings. There’s no better metaphor of the bridge-building kind than the role played by Aurora’s crocodile. As the animal escapes into Gian Luca’s neighbouring property, it sets the perfect justification for the lovers to meet, and chat, and fall in love. It is important to mention that the explorer at the beginning of the film, saddened by the absence of his loved one, commits suicide throwing himself into the lake, where a crocodile devours him. Ultimately, the aquatic reptile becomes the perfect allegory for any forbidden love.
As Tabu proves to be a rich exploration of love, of the past, and of cinema itself, Miguel Gomes cements his reputation as a great auteur. And lest we forget what the movie is all about, just remember… ‘You may run as far as you can, for as long as you like, but you will not escape your heart’.