Tabu: A Story of the South Seas Review
An oldie but a goody
Eureka continues their commitment to bringing quality films from outside the mainstream to DVD with their latest release Tabu - A Story of the South Seas. Directed by F W Murneau back in 1931, this quite stunning film is released for the first time in its completely uncensored and fully restored extended version.
Murnau was a very highly regarded director, who was responsible for the original Nosferatu (1922) as well as many other highly regarded films. Tabu was his last film, as he was tragically killed in a car accident on the way to the premiere.
The film follows the story of a Tahitian Fisherman (played by Matahi, a native islander) and his love for a young woman (played by his fellow native Reri - who went on to star on Broadway). The young lady's body has been consecrated to the Gods, making her forbidden (or Tabu) to mortal men. The lovers flee their island, but will their love blossom in the civilised world?
The interesting aspect of this endeavour is that the film successfully blurs the conventions of documentary and fiction. Murneau originally enlisted famed documentary maker Robert Flaherty to collaborate on the production, and although he eventually left the production, his influence very much remains. The stunning opening, for example, concentrates on the natural world of Bora-Bora. We get to see the natives in their natural habitat, fishing, and bathing. This opening is beautiful even now, but how amazing it must have been back in 1931 for cinema goers to be given this window on the world for the first time.....
Sadly, the traditions and way of life that the film-makers are celebrating turns on our two young protagonists when the lady is declared Tabu, and the documentary style gives way to a more archetypal love story that is played out in the second chapter “Paradise Lost” (The first chapter is called “Paradise”).
When watching this film today, it is notable how many of the island scenes, that were filmed for the first time here, have now passed into cliché. This could have the effect of diminishing the aims of Murneau - but it is testament to the Director's skill and vision that even if we have seen the islands imaged a thousand times since on film, the way that this is shot captures the essence of what it truly means to live such a life.
Tabu is a silent film, but the actors never employ the exaggerated mannerisms that one may expect from films of the silent era. The film also lacks title cards, and subtitles explaining the action - instead it is simply a normal film, which happens to not have words. It is also an astonishingly deep film - using metaphor instead of dialogue to convey meaning. The best example of this is the character of Hitu, the old man who declares Reri Tabu. He can be seen as representing authority, age, and death - all the things that the young struggle against
The other reason why this vision of the island seems so natural is that the characters are not portrayed by actors - but by local islanders. They give an astonishingly naturalistic performance - further blurring the line between documentary and fiction.
Tabu is a truly astonishing work, and in reading about Murneau in preparation for this review, I can see many parallels between the struggle of forbidden love portrayed, and his own struggle with his homosexuality. Perhaps it is this very personal message that he is trying to convey that makes the film so affecting and moving. It is nothing short of a tragedy that this great director was killed on the way to the premiere, and never saw his film shown to the Public. It would have been fascinating to see the director, who took the silent film and dispensed with the usual captions and exaggerated posing, move into the talkie era. But sadly it was not to be.
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