Starring Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral. Written by Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo. Directed by Miguel Gomes. 18A. 113 min. Opens Sept. 21 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The drumbeat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is one of the most iconic in the history of pop music, and it’s propelled a number of movies into the stratosphere: Mean Streets, Dirty Dancing, and now, Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes’s magical Tabu. A movie with rhythm deep in its bones,the film smartly (and sparingly) uses its soundtrack to inspire swells of emotion in characters and the audience alike.
Tabu’s emotional impact is matched by its formal and intellectual rigour: Gomes is doing two great things at once, which is appropriate for a film that is quite explicitly cleaved in two. The first part takes place in contemporary Lisbon, where the friendships among a trio of older women in an apartment complex are given probing, affectionate attention. Then, the death of one character prompts an extended flashback, only tangentially connected (it seems) to the first story and set decades earlier in Africa, a ravishingly visualized natural realm where love is dangerous, the natives are restless, and spectral crocodiles co-exist in perfect harmony with Phil Spector covers.
This elaborately realized interlude on the Dark Continent is another example of the director doing two things at once: He’s working with the visual language of silent cinema and relying on an extended voiceover for exposition and psychological insight while telling a modern tale of Paradise Lost that’s very skeptical about the idea of paradise at all. Tabu is a wildly ambitious movie whose reach is thankfully not exceeded by its grasp. Gomes holds our hearts in his hands, and while he doesn’t quite break them, he leaves us with a grateful, lingering ache.