Pros: sonorous voice of Henrique Espírito Santo
Cons: Lisbon middle, ludicrous prologue, purple prose narrations
Though there is an adulterous liaison far from Europe in Miquel Gomes’s 2012 movie, and though it is often a silent movie, and at others a silent movie with voice-over explication, I considered titling it “Tabu” is very presumptuous. Murnau’s great final film (1931) was about “the natives,” not about colonialists getting into trouble far from home (a Portugeuse colony, either Anglo or (more probably) Mozambique) in Africa, rather than the Polynesia of Murnau’s film.
In the puzzling 7-minute prologue with a very obtrusive narration (by Gomes) over old and silent home movies, a Great White Hunter (bearded and wearing a pith helmet) despairing over his dead wife feeds himself to a crocodile, while the native servants dance. (There is live sound for the dance and chant.)
This is followed by a lengthy and tedious portrait of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman in Lisbon and Santa (Isabel Cardoso) ,her black servant and a younger (though not young) white friend, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who doesn’t know how to help the old lady, until, hospitalized, the old lady sends her to fetch a man, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo),who turns out to have been her lover in Africa, while she was pregnant by her husband. (His younger incarnation is played by Carloto Cotta and Aurora by Ana Moreira. He bears some resemblance to John Gilbert, though she doesn’t invoke memories of Greta Garbo, except in the first still reproduced here. She looks more Jeanne Moreau in the other two, further below.
The lengthy colonial African flashbacks do not show the grand passion of which the man speaks. He continues the tale after the sparsely attended funeral. Gian Luca does relate that the hunter in the prolog was Aurora’s father… which makes her having had a pet crocodile additionally macabre.
I think the Portuguese movie lacks not only the passion of Murnau’s film, but a compelling sorcerer, like the nemesis of the Polynesian lovers in Murnau’s film. And I don’t understand the critical acclaim and the collection of awards from the Berlin and other film festivals for Gomes’s movie, which I find awkward and unconvincing as a tale of grand passion or seething anti-colonial rebellion in Africa (though concern about that provides the space/time for the adulterous coupling). The prologue is risible, a murder blamed on the rebels is unsettling, and the contemporary Lisbon part is very tedious. (Yeah, I get that it is supposed to look sterile and Aurora is increasingly demented.)
It’s also frustrating that “Be My Baby” (with the lead singing in Portuguese, the backup singers in English—all are male and the lyrics are not subtitled back into English) is cut off before its ending twice! The covers for the song and the rebel activity place the Great Romance some time between 1963 and 1975 (Portugal gave up its African colonies substantially later than France and Great Britain.)