Review by Nathan Samdahl
Tabu is an often beautiful and stylistically ambitious film that sadly comes up a bit short on its execution. This was one of the more challenging viewing experiences I've had in recent months. There are parts of this film where I was on the cusp of breaking out in laughter or crying for a character, but simply couldn't. Describing Tabu as emotionally muted would probably be appropriate.
Having not seen any of director Miguel Gomes' prior work, perhaps my expectations were simply not set accordingly. But I became increasingly frustrated at a narrative that in its most nuanced and stylized version could have served as the next Wes Anderson film, but did not push the envelope far enough. The opening scene - where an explorer of sorts leads an entourage of natives in Africa to a river where he unceremoniously proceeds to dive into the river to his death - seems like one ripped from The Life Acuatic with Steve Zissou, but without the timing necessary to garner a laugh.
I was lost at times because the movie is tonally confused. What is the intention of the film? By choosing to make Tabu not fully grounded and at times even surreal, I became emotionally detached from all of the characters. But unlike in Wes Anderson movies, there is no humor to fall back on. Simply put, I didn't care.
I didn't care about the characters in the first half (even though I wanted to!) and as a result I cared even less when they flashbacked for the entire second half to the younger self of one of these characters.
To make up for this general blandness, Gomes took a ballsy stylistic chance by removing all the dialogue in the second half (with the exception of the narrator) while leaving all the environmental sounds - for example, you would hear a person's footsteps, but not what they said when they were walking. This could have been an interesting choice if it was motivated by, for instance, a character's memory of the events. Maybe they didn't remember everything that was said, but never forgot what it was like to live in Africa and all its sounds and smells. However, this is never explained.
The removal of dialogue for no apparent reason made me angry. I love new methods of storytelling, but I don't love them employed unless they are actually going to help the story. This decision sadly seemed done for the director's enjoyment rather than for any story motivated reason. I'm aware that Tabu has wound up on many top ten lists - certainly those people saw something I did not - but as for foreign films this year, there are many great ones that I would explore before this one.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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