I admit to a certain disappointment in the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s TABU, widely praised as a neo-surrealist masterpiece, and indeed with a number of engrossing qualities. It is visually striking, as though put together from black-and-white home movies and other found footage, although nothing is rough-around-the-edges in its austere and polished imagery. There is a theme of muteness in part of it, which is interestingly reflected by the sound editing in those sections, keeping the background noise but eliminating the sound of speech even during conversations.
An implicit political critique of colonialism adds substance to the story (which is not particularly surreal or even improbable) of an ill-fated love affair in a Portuguese colony in Africa and the attempt by the dying older woman to find the man in question. The title is ambiguous, both the name of a mystical mountain in the colony (presumably fictional) and a reference to things forbidden. The effect is elegiac and aesthetically delicate.
TABU can feel like a piece of visual music, but its putative surrealism is rather undermined by its documentary style, or aesthetic. The trailer that drew me to it was more editorially evocative of the surreal than is the film itself. It is worth seeing and in some respects fascinating; that which disappoints me about it has much to do with the expectations that the trailer and other sources created in advance; on its own terms it is at a minimum worthy and sensitively composed.
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