"Tabu," the third film from rising Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, feels like a relic of the past and not merely because of its aesthetic nod to silent film great F.W. Murnau's final project.
Like a collage of old black and white movies found in an attic, many of "Tabu's" images unfold in complete silence, only the barest of dialogue graces others. The audience is left to imagine much of the story, though it is clear it involves love, betrayal, guilt, regret and a recurring crocodile.
At first "Tabu" is intriguing. But the enigma gets wearing as the director's attention is divided between the homage to the silent film era and the film's underlying exploration of the regret of old age. Ultimately it makes for a film undercut by its own grand ambition.
Gomes has turned "Tabu" into a free-form exercise for us. It opens with a prologue - a fable about an explorer trying to escape the pain of his young wife's death. The film itself looks scratched by age and with the staccato pacing of the earliest movies. Like much in "Tabu," the specifics of the explorer's journey into darkest Africa are overshadowed by the emotions Gomes leaves hanging in the air. It may or may not be relevant for what is to follow.
The rest of the film is told in two parts. A title card names the first section "A Lost Paradise," the second "Paradise," both ironic references to Murnau's 1931 "Tabu" and one that will likely be lost on most moviegoers today.
No remnants of paradise remain in the dreary reality of three women living in present-day Lisbon where the movie picks up. But there is much about old age. Unlike Gomes' last film, 2008's "Our Beloved Month of August," an experiential summer story of romance and youth, "Tabu" is given over to lives already played out. You can feel the weight of the subject in the pacing in its slow, deliberate shots (with veteran Rui Pocas as director of photography). Everything is in black and white, but the look has shifted to the burnished beauty of movies in the final days before Technicolor took hold.
There is Pilar (Teresa Madruga), 60ish and solitary, her retirement filled with movies, religion, good works and worry, the latter primarily about her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). The increasingly addled octogenarian Aurora becomes an end-of-life study defined by a distant daughter, major regrets and troubled dreams. Casinos are her escape, and when she can, Aurora slips away from her caretaker Santa (Isabel Cardoso). As Aurora begins to slip away more literally, she asks Pilar to find an old friend, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo).
Pilar does, and the final chapter of the film unfolds as Ventura narrates "Paradise."
It is not paradise either but a tragedy that weaves together the clash between privilege and the social mores of the colonial life in a mythic African outpost called Tabu. The key players include a 20ish and spirited Aurora (Ana Moreira), her adoring husband (Ivo Muller), a tempting vagabond in Ventura (Carloto Cotta) and, yes, a crocodile.
At this point in "Tabu," the distance the filmmaker has imposed on the audience - that we can only watch their interactions, that we can never hear them speak - feels less like a creative statement and more a device to patch up problems. As to the crocodile, his motives and his moods remain a mystery.
• Unrated: Portuguese with English subtitles.
• Director: Miguel Gomes.
• Cast: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral and Ana Moreira.
• Running time: 218 minutes.