The Ultimate Colonial Crime
The Personal Folds into the Political in Tabu
Tabu, the second feature by the talented Portuguese director and critic Miguel Gomes, begins in the jungle. Giant trees, tall weeds, strange birds, and stinging insects surround a white explorer (or colonial officer) who is leading a long line of African laborers. The white man's mind, however, is not in the jungle or journey, but is lost instead in the memories of his dead wife. He is not in the present but in the past. Eventually, the explorer/officer comes across a section of a stream occupied by a crocodile. This is where he meets his end, and also where it's revealed that we are watching a film being watched by a woman, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), in present-day Lisbon.
Pilar is in her 50s and handsome, she lives alone and, as her solid command of English indicates, she is educated. But just as we are about to get a clear sense of her life and politics, which are progressive, it's revealed that the movie is not really about her, but about her next-door neighbors—a bitter and old white woman, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who lives with an exhausted black maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). The old woman is addicted to gambling; the maid spends her free time reading Robinson Crusoe. The old white woman and the maid are not on friendly terms—the old woman suspects the maid is up to no good, and the maid would thank the gods if the old woman vanished. But just when we're certain that the strained relationship between Aurora and Santa is the bottom of this movie, we leave present-day Lisbon and enter a plantation in the twilight of colonial Mozambique.
It's the early 1960s, revolution is in the air, and the restless natives want their land back. But the Europeans continue to dream like there's no tomorrow, continue to throw parties around swimming pools, continue to play American rock music in local nightclubs, hunt animals in the jungle, and raise crocodiles in their gardens. They are in paradise.
This section of the film, which is set on a plantation owned by a young Aurora (Ana Moreira), contains the core of Tabu—and that core is a violent crime committed by a torn lover. There is, however, no investigation of this crime: No detective arrives at the scene, no arrests are made, no court passes judgment, and no punishment is administered by the state. Tabu is not that kind of movie. The director instead wants to expose something deeper and more existential about the colonial experience, something that's outside the standard state dispositifs of control, management, and policing. As a consequence, the crime is not a symbol of the colonial exploitation of African humans and geological resources. It's not about feminism (the criminal is a woman) or political liberation. Instead, it is about how we, as individuals, are doomed to be nostalgic, doomed to cling to the past, doomed to grow old and lose everything that was once so real to us. And the realest thing of all is the time of our youth. The crime, in short, is a cry.
Shot in black and white, Tabu not only has multiple narrative layers, but it also blurs almost every imaginable structural line: between the mythical and the actual, the substantial and the surreal, comedy and drama, the present and the past, nature and civilization, madness and sanity, human and animal, colonial and postcolonial, political and personal. The end result of all this blurring is to highlight how the violence of people in power, in this case colonialists, cannot always be explained by their status—people do not wake up and think, "I am the state." They wake up and think, "I am pregnant," or "I am jealous," or "I am in crisis."
If I had seen Tabu last year, I would have placed it in my top 10 films.