Portugal's entry for last year's best foreign language Oscar is a peculiar celebration of dog days spent in the country's mountainous interior. Elliptical and episodic, the hybrid blends music, documentary and narrative elements into an intriguing but frustratingly vague whole. Links to rural life and the "real" Portugal notwithstanding, Our Beloved Month of August is a movie that only the cognoscenti will love. Its run at Anthology Film Archives, as part of a retrospective of director Miguel Gomes's body of work, will come and go faster than most other ephemeral happenings during the sweltering season.
With only two features and six shorts to his credit, Gomes is a darling of international cinema, which doesn't bode well for the Portuguese film industry's commercial prospects. Having encountered difficulties funding and casting a fictional piece he wanted to make in 2006, Gomes decided to forge ahead and shoot documentary-style footage with a 16mm camera and a skeleton crew of five. The title for the catch-all bit of improv that resulted comes from a song popular during the August fiestas held in the villages of the Arganil region.
The first hour or so is a non-discursive kaleidoscope alternating between musical performances, travelogue-type vignettes and interviews with locals who recount stories that occasionally mirror the lyrics of the ballads being sung. Gomes's fly-on-the-wall lens offers snippets of folk practices, like religious processions, and "mountain stuff," such as wild boar hunts. It's purposefully difficult to determine what's legend or hearsay and what's true, including tales about a local daredevil and perpetual inebriate called Paulo Miller. In this overly-clever spirit, Gomes himself appears on camera in conversation with a producer of his original film to explain why it's not being made as planned.
At around the seventy-minute mark, many of these elements begin to be incorporated into a more traditional narrative, linear yet still piecemeal, focusing on an extended family of amateur musicians who spend the season traveling from village to village, playing romantic ballads and dance music. The relationship between teenaged cousins Helder (Fábio Oliveira), a guitarist visiting from Lisbon with his parents, and lead singer Tania (Sónia Bandeira) comes to the fore. Echoing an earlier anecdote, Tania's mother, for whom she's a dead ringer, has supposedly run off with a doctor from Lisbon. This explanation for her absence may well have been fabricated, however; and Tania's creepy-close bond with her father, Domingo (Joaquim Carvalho), only fuels speculation on the part of villagers and viewers. The attraction between Helder and Tania adds another layer of incestuous desire. A recurring theme throughout is how liquor, together with the hot, fire-producing weather, stokes forbidden liaisons and other unbridled behavior, such as Miller's penchant for jumping off an old bridge into a river.
As befits the postmodern feel of the movie, no narrative standpoint is trustworthy. This lends a haphazard quality that isn't made up for by the air of tantalizing mystery, or by any technical eloquence for that matter. Only one major question is answered as the summer idyll ends. Gomes takes his conceit far indeed. We learn during the wittiest rupture of the fourth wall, as the end titles roll, that even the movie's sound recording is suspect, and subject to fanciful, perhaps magical forces; this heightening the sense we're watching an overheated but undercooked fantasy.
As a piece of whimsical anthropology, Our Beloved Month of August is a tease and as a celluloid experiment born of necessity it has too few arresting moments. Gomes may believe that imposing more shape equals a capitulation to the traditional or mainstream, to more austere seasonal forces. But letting chaos operate within more formal boundaries doesn't necessitate putting out the fire.
Distributor: Anthology Film Archives
Cast: Sónia Bandeira, Fábio Oliveira, Joaquim Carvalho and Manuel Soares
Director: Miguel Gomes
Screenwriters: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro
Producers: Thomas Ordonneau, Luís Urbano and Sandro Aguilar
Genre: Drama/Musical/Documentary; Portuguese-language, subtitled
Running time: 147 min
Release date: September 3 NY