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Memory and Narrative in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu

“You may run as far as you can, for as long as you like, but you will not escape your heart.”

On 25th April 1974, the Estado Novo regime was brought down by a military coup. This signalled not only Portugal’s release from authoritarianism but the end of a 13-year war with its African colonies. Now approaching the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, I return to Miguel Gomes’ 2012 feature Tabu. Few films have so brilliantly captured the gap between reality and memory – personal and collective – raising important questions about the modern repercussions of a colonial history we continue to have trouble discussing. At the heart of the film lies a profound exploration of our attempts at grappling with the otherness of the past, that will haunt its viewers long after it has ended. 

Tabu is divided into three parts: the Prologue, Part One – Paradise Lost, and Part Two – Paradise. The film opens with the dream-like tale of an explorer who, haunted by the ghost of a dead wife he cannot forget, lets himself be eaten by a crocodile. It then turns out that this is a film within a film being watched by Pilar, with whom we begin Part One. In present day Lisbon, we follow the lives of Pilar and her neighbours: the housemaid Santa and the elderly Aurora who, abandoned by her daughter, is increasingly in the grips of dementia. This is ‘Paradise Lost’, a melancholic, washed out Lisbon, peopled with isolated, discontented figures. When Aurora’s health takes a sudden decline, Pilar is asked to locate Gian Luca Ventura, who in the film’s third section narrates Aurora’s youth spent on a farm on Mount Tabu and their tale of forbidden love. 

Part Two ‘Paradise’ is composed entirely of Gian Luca’s memories of Africa and Aurora. This third section is devoid of dialogue. It is narrated in its entirety through a voice-over. Although this is certainly an homage to silent film – Murnau’s Tabu in particular –  it is worth considering the significance of the silence of the voices of the past and the superimposition of a present one. Despite the fact that these are Gian Luca’s memories, he starts by describing Aurora’s life before she existed for him. The images we see have to be projections. This continues throughout the film. Although we only get access to Gian Luca’s interiority, this section isn’t really narrated from his point of view. We see Aurora alone many times, scenes that for him are impossible as memories – even as inaccurate ones – and can only be Gian Luca’s own narrative formulations of the past. He seems to assume the role of third-person narrator of his own life. The past as it happened is inaccessible and to reach at it through memory is to build narrative. It is to look at oneself as a character. 

However, Tabu makes it clear that our past is not the stories we make of it. In an interview with MUBI, Gomes stated that he had never deeply considered the symbol of the crocodile until he began to be repeatedly asked about it during the film’s press junket. He stated: “Only then did I realize that maybe the crocodile had something to do with time. He’s like a witness; we must have a witness. People that fall in love and separate. Empires that raise and fall, colonial empires.” How people choose to remember the past does not alter how it happened, or the imprints it leaves behind. Despite all its comments on the unreliability of memory and the foreignness of the past, Tabu remains devoted to the idea that the marks we leave on others – for better or for worse – are concealable but ultimately unerasable. Aurora’s last burnt letter reminds us of this, as the film draws to a close: “If the memory of men is limited, the world’s is eternal and that no one can escape.” Aurora’s letter ends and we are met with the film’s final shot: the crocodile: an ancient witness, a superhuman judge. 

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