In the form of a diptych in counter-chronological order, reversing the structure of its inspiration, F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), Miguel Gomes’ Tabu tells a story of love and revolution in 1960s Mozambique. Shot in black and white—this is a film about race and a film about historic cinema—part one of the diptych takes place in contemporary Lisbon, where the pious Pilar (Teresa Madruga) worries about social injustice and the welfare of her aged neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral). Resisting the marriage suit of a friend (Cândido Ferreira), who dozes beside her at the cinema while she silently weeps, or praying fervently at a demonstration, Pilar has married a life of service. Whether her sacrifices bring about the good, the director does not indicate.
Pilar believes that Aurora is losing her mind and needs medical care, but she cannot convince Aurora’s African maid Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso) to ask for money from Aurora’s daughter. The suggestively named Santa has her orders, and not bugging the daughter is one of them. What is more, the elegant Aurora makes trouble, gambling away the household cash, pawning and retrieving her fur coat, and accusing her maid of poisoning her. Aurora herself confesses to Pilar that she has blood on her hands. So perhaps Santa resists Pilar’s efforts to help because she resents the old woman and wants her to suffer, or because she cannot afford to be fired by the daughter, or because she believes no medicine could heal Aurora’s spiritual ills, or because she is the agent of righteousness, more of a saint even than Pilar.
On her deathbed, Aurora asks Santa to deliver the message of her impending demise to one Mr. Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), whom Pilar locates in an old person’s home. By then Aurora is dead, but Ventura attends her funeral and goes with Pilar and Santa to a café, where he embarks on the story that composes part two of the diptych, that of his youthful love affair with Aurora in Africa. This part, silent movie style, contains no dialogue, only Ventura’s voiceover.
Having traveled on his motorcycle to the foot of Mount Tabu (there is a Mount Mabu in Mozambique), the handsome adventurer Ventura (Carloto Cotta) lands on a farm next to the beautiful game hunter Aurora (Ana Moreira) and her energetic young husband (Ivo Müller). The husband has given Aurora a cute baby crocodile (yes, a symbol of her adorable, untamable, appetitive soul), who escapes and is found in Ventura’s pond.
The husband goes away on business, the crocodile makes a bee line for Ventura’s place, Aurora follows it, and the inevitable occurs. She and Ventura not only go to bed, but fall passionately, fatefully, and eternally in love.
Ventura joins a rock band led by his buddy Mario (Manuel Mesquita). In white suits, shades, and longish hair, the band poses for publicity shots and performs The Ronettes’ standard “Baby, I love You” (as recorded by The Ramones) at a pool party as Aurora and her husband and their friends dance the twist. Ventura confesses his adulterous obsession to Mario, who insists that his friend give up the affair. It is a sin. The lovers know this and try to separate, but when Aurora discovers that she is pregnant, they run away together.
Gomes does not trivialize the pair’s erotic bliss or their anguished consciences, but subtly juxtaposes their liaison with the brewing guerrilla campaign against Portuguese rule, which erupted in September 1964. Aurora and Ventura, doubly cocooned in colonial and amorous oblivion, fail to notice that history is taking place around them—until, ironically, the guerrillas take credit for a crazy murder resulting from their affair. The murder splits them apart forever, although both return to Portugal, Ventura immediately and Aurora later, presumably during the Carnation Revolution of 1974, when the Portuguese left Mozambique en masse.
Although synopses of the film reliably refer to the young Aurora as selfish, restless, and headstrong, Gomes, smarter than his reviewers, hardly intends her as a belle dame sans merci who ruins men’s prospects and destabilizes the social order. The social order is already awry. Akin to Maria Vial, the protagonist of Claire Denis’ brutal film about Europeans in Africa, White Material, Aurora represents something more resonant to modern viewers than a femme fatale. She is the crocodile in the swimming pool, an intractable white woman who, identifying with her adoptive land if not its people, fails to recognize that she paddles in an artificial pond. Even at the end of her life, after she has paid in decades of self-denial for her fault of adultery, she has not asked herself why her “black witch” of a maid might want to poison her.