Fri, Sep 7, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Miguel Gomes. Starring Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta Club, IFI, Dublin, 110 min

ACADEMY RATIO is the hot thing. Having made recent appearances in Wuthering Heights and The Artist, that little square screen is fast becoming the retro-fetish of the age.

The smaller frame makes its latest appearance in a beautiful, occasionally frustrating memory piece by the distinguished Portuguese film-maker Miguel Gomes. On paper, Tabu reads like

a pretty forbidding piece of work. The title echoes that of a 1931 drama co-directed by FW Murnau, and frequent sly references are made to that German film-maker. Tabu employs a tripartite structure and never quite decides what tone it wants to take. For all that, it remains engrossing, lively and moving throughout.

Events begin with a vaguely comic prologue featuring a 19th- century explorer making his way across Africa. Raising a recurring theme, the fellow has an incident with a crocodile and we zip forwards to follow events in contemporary Lisbon.

The middle section relates the parallel stories of two unhappy neighbours: the middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who works in human rights and can’t connect emotionally with others; and Aurora (Laura Soveral), who believes that her black maid is conspiring against her. Following certain complications, we meet an old acquaintance of Aurora who tells us her story. Many years previously, she was involved in a passionate romance while living in colonial Africa.

Shot in black and white, projected in that narrow square, Tabu clearly has much to say about the way cinema works on the brain. The final sequence gestures towards silent film by suppressing almost all dialogue. Full of pale women lounging in a fly-infested nether-jungle, the movie, during these later stages, also reminds us of Hollywood’s taste for politically dubious colonial romantic dramas.

For all its cleverly shot post- modernity, Tabu inadvertently argues for the power of old-school storytelling. Aurora’s tale may be just one unit in a series of nesting narratives, but it is easily strong enough to have been allowed out on its own. They do make them like they used to, but now they wrap them up in fancy paper and call them art.

A very arresting oddity.

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