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Originally published Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘Tabu’: a jigsaw-puzzle romance with pieces in Lisbon, Africa

A movie review of “Tabu,” a Portuguese film that’s really three movies in one; the most entertaining, essentially a flashback, deals with colonialists in Africa 50 years ago.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

“Tabu,” with Ana Moreira, Laura Soveral, Teresa Madruga. Directed by Miguel Gomes, from a screenplay by Gomes and Mariana Ricardo. 118 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains a sex scene). In Portuguese, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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Not to be confused with F.W. Murnau’s Oscar-winning 1931 South Seas classic, “Tabu,” Miguel Gomes’ hard-to-describe Portuguese film is really three movies in one.

The first, which might be called “Intrepid Explorer,” shows a stereotypical colonialist hacking his way across Africa. It’s sort of a joke, a red herring, but it does get things off to an amusing start.

The second film, set mostly in contemporary Lisbon, concerns the ailing Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is on her deathbed when she tells a neighbor, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), about a man from her past. She still has his name and address and wants Pilar to contact him.

The third film, and the most entertaining of the trio, takes Aurora back 50 years, when she was involved in a tragic romantic triangle in Africa. She’s played by a much younger actress, Ana Moreira, whose exotic entrance makes the rest of Aurora’s tale of betrayal entirely credible.

Complicating matters are another forbidden love story, Pilar’s political activism (the script calls into question the effectiveness of the United Nations), Aurora’s domestic battles with a maid, and the unreal nature of Portuguese colonialism (tea and biscuits are served at the most unlikely moments).

The new “Tabu” does share a few things with Murnau’s film: a pervasive fatalistic quality, long sequences that are nearly silent (narration takes over during the final scenes) and gorgeous black-and-white photography (presented in old-fashioned 35mm at Northwest Film Forum).

But otherwise it’s an original: a kind of jigsaw puzzle, spiced up with references to “White Mischief,” “Out of Africa” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” that will frustrate some audiences and fascinate others.

John Hartl:

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