Tabu, by relatively green Portuguese director and co-writer Miguel Gomes, is both confounding and mesmerizing, an often curiously edited and seemingly lopsided tale. Filmed in pristine black and white, the story is divided into two parts, the first titled “A Lost Paradise” and the second simply “Paradise.” As those suggest, the film goes back in time, a jump that’s somewhat jarring until you realize that Part 2 is its true essence.
A Lisbon-based retiree named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is the focus of the first part. She’s presented as a selfless do-gooder, agreeing to take in a young Polish student (though that never happens, because the girl changes her mind), hanging her torch-bearing friend’s not-great art in her living room when she expects him to drop by, and participating in peaceful protests. But mostly she plays guardian to her elderly neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), helping out Aurora’s maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso).
Aurora has a gambling problem, and when she runs out of money at the casino, Pilar fetches her, patiently listening as Aurora talks about a crazy dream that she uses to justify her gaming. That’s not the only time she sounds a little nutty, though, constantly cursing her estranged daughter and accusing Santa of being sent by the devil and practicing voodoo against her. Pilar wants to get Aurora psychological help, but Santa is adamantly against it, insisting that she only takes orders from Aurora’s daughter and that Pilar should mind her own business, anyway.
But Aurora is not long for this world, and before she dies, she requests that Santa and Pilar find a man named Ventura who, because of her other delusions, they don’t believe exists. But he does—though his son warns that he’s in a home and has also lost his mind—and their sitting down to coffee kicks off the second part of Tabu, which takes place 50 years earlier in Africa.
Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) soothingly narrates this entire part of the film, describing how he and Aurora came to meet. It initially feels like a long-winded aside, and you may get restless or straight-up puzzled. (Particularly by Gomes’ marking of time—in Part 1, text announces each day from December 28 to January 3, whereas Part 2 is divided into months; neither seem to serve much purpose.) There are scenes that feel disjointed or simply out of step with the established (and mostly serious) tone, such as a pool party at Aurora’s house during which a band plays “Baby, I Love You.” During the party, girls dance and there’s talk of another man and his son, neither of whom have been brought up before.
But Gomes keeps you paying attention. He films several scenes with only ambient sound as you watch the characters talk but can’t hear them. Ventura mentions details that prove to Pilar and Santa (though both effectively disappear during this segment) that Aurora’s ramblings during her last days had basis in truth. And her story becomes more and more involved, which may cause you to forget your annoyance that two prominent characters have been unexpectedly pushed aside as the batty old lady takes center stage. As a young woman, Aurora lived on the (fictional) African Mount Tabu, but the film’s title may as well be an alternately spelled description of her life’s drama. She’d succumbed to the forbidden, and suddenly this odd film draws you in like a soap opera.