Tabu, Miguel Gomes, 118 mins (15)

5.00

Past and present merge in this tale of love, memory and a melancholy crocodile

Until recently, there was no doubt about the top positions in my list of Greatest Animals in Art Cinema – the anarchic goats in Le Quattro Volte, and the "deranged penguin" encountered in the Antarctic by Werner Herzog. Now there's a serious challenger for Best of Bestiary: the "sad and melancholy crocodile" from the wonderfully strange Portuguese film Tabu.

This baleful creature first makes its appearance in the prologue, an eerie anecdote about a depressed European explorer in Africa. But the tale, narrated in lugubrious voice-over, turns out to be part of an old black and white film watched in a Lisbon cinema by a middle-aged woman named Pilar (Teresa Madruga). What follows, still in gorgeously shot black and white, is Pilar's story – until it takes a left turn and becomes something else again.

Tabu premiered in this year's Berlin Film Festival, where critics emerged with smiles of rapturous bewilderment. At the risk of spoiling the surprise, I'd have to describe Tabu as a diptych: two quite different stories with a unifying aesthetic and sense of humour. The first 50 minutes tell the downbeat story of Pilar, who lives alone but has a close friend, and seemingly unrequited suitor, in an elderly artist whose abstract canvases she hangs on her walls out of consideration for him – although her own taste is for cosy rural panoramas. She's politically motivated, attending rallies and scanning human rights abuses online. And she's solicitous towards her elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), a rather grand lady developing dementia and proving the despair of her maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso). In one extraordinary scene, Aurora explains at length why she's gambled her money away at a casino: because of a bizarre dream about monkeys.

Pilar's story is recounted in a lyrical, hangdog manner: in two very funny, but also rather sad scenes, Pilar meets a young Polish nun who's supposed to be staying with her, but who proves totally unreliable (and who's clearly no nun, either).

Then comes another story altogether, about Aurora's youth, narrated in voice-over by a dapper old gent who was once her lover. It's set in the early 1960s, somewhere in Africa, on the slopes, we're told, of Mount Tabu. Imagine Anna Karenina rewritten à la Ernest Hemingway as the tale of a plantation owner's spoilt wife (Ana Moreira as the young Aurora) and a dashing adventurer, their torrid affair sparked by the incident of an escaped crocodile.

The romance of Aurora and Ventura (Carloto Cotta) could be another ancient movie melodrama, like the one that opens the film – or perhaps this is just how film-lover Pilar imagines the story as it's narrated to her. But Tabu isn't a straight pastiche of silent cinema. For one thing, Miguel Gomes plays fast and loose with his soundtrack, erasing people's voices (their lips move, but we never hear them), while being selective about background sounds. In one scene, people dive into a swimming pool, but we never hear a splash, although we do hear birdsong.

Then there's the music. Improbably, Ventura moonlights as a drummer in the beat group led by his sidekick Mario (Manuel Mesquita), a student priest turned crooner; at a pool party, they're seen miming to the Phil Spector classic "Baby I Love You" – only it's the 1980 cover by the Ramones (complete with a string section that's certainly nowhere to be seen).

The African story, with crocodiles slithering enigmatically in and out, has a tragic outcome, and it's a rare feat on Gomes's part that he persuades us to take it seriously, for all the surrounding eccentricity.

Tabu's overall meaning may be elusive, but there's clearly a political subtext at work. While the Europeans in the love story are stock figures, the Africans – though the narrative keeps them purely as background figures – are clearly real Africans, living in the 21st century. Among the beautiful landscape shots are scenes of village life and rural work that have a documentary texture. And the upshot of Aurora's romance is that it sparks an uprising.

You can read Tabu as a story about love, memory and melancholy; as a rueful contemplation of Portugal's colonial history; or as a delirious celebration of story and the cinematic imagination. It is all of these, and in its delicate, even rather shy way, it's the most joyously odd and surprising film of the year. It would take a truly reptilian soul not to love it.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London