Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/13
World premiere: 13 February, 2013, Berlin International Film Festival

There's symbolism and there's SYMBOLISM, and João Viana's The Battle of Tabatô tends to traffic in the latter: it has characters and a plot in the strictest sense, but even they are functions more of what the film wants to say about post-colonial Africa than psychologically active players in a drama. This sounds like a complaint, but it's not, entirely; the sprawling mess that is post-colonial Africa is too big to be considered from just one angle, and a heavily moderated metaphorical treatment is as valid as anything. Though I don't entirely know that I mightn't have preferred this particular message, delivered by this particular story, to have been made by a native of the culture being explored, but it doesn't do to be inflexible and mirthless about these things.

Anyway, the point is that there's a hell of a lot of symbolism. And it does start to become a bit overwhelming before very long at all, but the movie is so aggressively idiosyncratic in so many ways that it's not as fatiguing as it readily could be, even to those of us with a pronounced suspicion about symbolism in any and all of its forms.

The simple facts of the movie are these: Fatu (Fatu Djebaté) is marrying Mamadu (Mamadu Baio), and her father (Imutar Djebaté) returns from Europe to Guinea-Bissau for the first time in many years to be present; he has been carrying around considerable guilt and trauma over his role in the wars of a generation ago, when the country was still a Portuguese colony. The ceremony is to be held in Tabatô, a village of great historical importance in the development of the art of the Mandinka empire many centuries ago, and when tragedy strikes, this same village turns into the site of a kind of exorcism by music, in which ancient traditions do war with European conceptions of life and death and personal guilt, in a battle that proves to be rather more figurative than otherwise.

See, even the "facts" start to get muddied up, pretty quickly, in favor of overtly metaphorical relationships between characters and places. Which is as it should be, I suppose, given that Battle of Tabatô starts throwing conceptual arguments our way even before the first images appear, opening with a soothing-voiced narrator recounting the history of Mandinka culture, setting up a "you" and "we" opposition (the exact referent of those pronouns is left unclarified, though I assume it's Europeans/Americans and the people of Western Africa, respectively), and not entirely playing fair, as when he posits that agriculture was invented in Western Africa 4500 years ago, something that the Egyptians of 6000 years ago, for a start, might find a problem with.

Lord knows it's arresting, though, and I'd be lying if I said that I could name another film that resembled it in more than superficial aspects. Using the actions of characters to stand in for approaches to culture, obviously, is not new, though the degree to which Battle of Tabatô doesn't try to hide its allegory by making the human drama more superficially interesting than the cultural commentary is unusual, to say the least. Even in the more plain half of the movie, before the trip to Tabatô enters the land of magical realism and abstraction, has the feeling of a pageant as much as it does representational drama. Viana shots all of this in black and white, and a particularly distancing, soft monochrome it is, too, not like the sharp, somewhat glossy look that tends to characterise modern black and white cinematography. It is a hazy film where even the most basic, everyday objects acquire a certain level of impressionistic dislocation, whether it's as aggressive as in the opening shots of motorcycles tearing down a misty road like patches of white against a grey-black background, or as subtle as a radio booth that becomes less and less definite the more we look at it.

There are plenty of striking compositions throughout, using elements of normal sets in bold and shocking ways: metal grates fragmenting normal shots into a dozen little frames, looming close-ups with abstracted backgrounds. All of it is beautiful in its own right, and it has the effect of making the film seem like it takes place in a conceptual rather than a physical space, and that in turn helps the symbolism. What it doesn't do is help the drama or make any of this more palatable as a movie, and not as an intellectual exercise. Battle of Tabatô is, quintessentially, the kind of film that makes people trot out the word "admire" in a particularly dubious way, because the fact of the matter is, this is an awfully dry, unengaging movie. Not that everything has to be a rip-roaring entertainment, because of course there's room for more reflective, subdued movies, but Battle of Tabatô fails to be particularly compelling or engaging in its pursuit of its ideas, and while I'm thrilled to be exposed to these concepts and arguments, that's all the farther that the movie takes me.