21 May 2020

Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

An evening spent with a silent film is an evening well spent, especially when the film in question is as great as Murnau's swan song - a fatalist ballad of doomed, star-crossed lovers. From the very opening which is the only scene directed by the co-writer Robert J. Flaherty, it is apparent that we are in for a delightful treat.

Taken to an earthly paradise of the Bora Bora island, we are introduced to a group of indigenous fishermen one of whom will turn out to be the tragic hero. This young man by the name of Matahi falls for a beautiful maiden, Reri, but their romance gets nipped in the bud when the girl is chosen as the successor to the sacred virgin of the Fanuma tribe. From that point forth, she is tabu and to break that tabu means death, as we are informed by an elder, Hitu, who delivers his chief's message. Fleeing from the clutches of strict customs embodied by the said geezer, the couple arrives to another island, only to be unknowingly caught in the gnawing maw of western civilization which has already infested those parts. Initially, their escape appears successful, but Fate has something else in the bag for them...

Essentially, Tabu is a Romeo and Juliet story ably relocated to the breathtaking Pacific setting and transformed into a compelling piece of docufiction. Split in two parts aptly titled Paradise and Paradise Lost, it is both poetic and anthropological, and a fine example of the 'show, don't tell' method, with text cards utilized sparsely, as well as creatively, and with good deal of information being provided by virtue of the wonderfully captured imagery (many kudos to DoP Floyd Crosby). Murnau elicits outstanding performances from the non-professional cast who reveal a surprisingly wide range of emotions through their gestures and facial expressions, thus making their characters convincing, sympathetic and impossible not to root for. The chemistry between the leads is natural, and their struggle against the cruel side of tradition is deeply felt. As the viewer is immersed into the islanders' simple, sunbathed and ostensibly carefree everyday, the gloom gradually seeps in, dissolving the aura of joy and innocence that once surrounded Reri and Matahi.

Brimful of kinetic energy reaching its maximum in the lively hula dancing and boat rowing sequences, and imbued with ravishing, exotic beauty whose colors can be seen despite the monochromatic cinematography, Tabu progresses at brisk pace, putting motion (with capital M) in motion picture, with the evocative mixture of classical and traditional music operating as the propellant. Its universal appeal and undeniable timelessness are reflected in simultaneously candid and idealized depictions of those small, yet meaningful moments that people experience in their pursuit for happiness, whether they decide to break some rules or not...

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