It's the world that we live in... Our Beloved Month Of August (2008)
It pains me to admit this but, outside of a few Costa's (O Sangue, 1989, is mystifyingly beautiful) and a scattering of de Oliveira's (Belle toujours, 2006) my exposure to Portuguese cinema has been fairly limited. Indeed, I'll be the first to admit that my review of Our Beloved Month Of August, the second feature from critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes, won't be the best available, because I'm unfamiliar with the language, themes and rhythms of Portuguese cinema. Distributors just don't seem confident with it having a UK audience. I hope this fact will be rectified by the time Gomes' third feature - apparently influenced by Murnau's under-appreciated TABU (1931) - is ready to hit our shores.
Impossible to comprehend by way of one genre, aesthetic or idea, Our Beloved Month Of August marries faux-documentary with self-conscious fiction, often blurring the line between where one begins and the other ends, if in fact they stop and start at all. The first hour is an ethnographic portrait of Portugal, awash with the spirit and sounds of summer; the camera observes, sporadically slipping into scripted events. The next 80 minutes unfurl the romantic relationship between teenage cousins Tânia (Sónia Bandeira) and Hélder (Fábio Oliveira), who play together in a local band. Upon first glance these would appear like different films which have been edited together by accident, yet they coalesce perfectly. A retelling of the production history offers possible insight into this phenomenon. Gomes had been forced to abandon a project which was due to shoot in Argnail in the summer of 2006. Disheartened, he nonetheless traveled to Argnail with a downsized crew, armed with a plentiful supply of 16mm film stock. He captured the essence of summer through his lens and, with funding secured in the meantime, returned to Argnail the following summer to work a narrative into the existing footage. I'm not sure what I believe. This is the truth which Gomes claims is behind his latest, but the film is slippery enough to make me doubt the sincerity of the tale. There's a definite hint of the New Wave within its structure, and I can imagine another critic-turned director, Jean-Luc Godard, recognizing a bit of himself in this deceptively beautiful work.
An example of that deception. Early in the film we are privy to a conversation between Gomes (playing himself) and his producer (fictional, played by the actor who later appears as Tânia's father). The producer is flicking through a script the size of a door wedge. "Where are these people?" he asks, referring to its characters. Gomes says that he's waiting for funding. Give me the money and I'll give you these people. That's his promise. Fact re-told through fiction. This is surely the first film in history to dissect its own story before proceeding to tell it. That this film also ends with an in-film dialogue between the director and his sound recordist is even more odd, adding further mystery. They discuss "phantom sounds", but of course the cinema is a medium of such things. Apparently music has been finding its way into the recorded sound, when in reality no music was present. What does this mean? I have no idea, but music is such a huge part of the film that it surely means something. Toward the end of the film there is an observed conversation between two actors. They discuss their roles. This scene is obviously staged in the same way as the emerging romance, and yet here one gets the impression of the filmmaker going for documentary, or something separate from but still part of the fiction.
Godard once said of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), "Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half." The same could be said of Our Beloved Month Of August, a beguiling work of facto-fiction in which every frame is a new adventure. I later learn that the film was a box office success in Portugal. Suddenly emigration seems like such a good idea.
The first striking aspect of Our Beloved Month Of August is the cover art - a purple vortex of swirling planets foregrounding an introspective young woman. It's a unique and compelling image which wouldn't look out of place in a gallery. The film itself looks wonderful. Of course, it was only shot five years ago, but this new director-approved transfer is outstanding.
As usual with Second Run there's an exemplary booklet to accompany the main picture, this time authored by Sight & Sound deputy editor Kieron Corless. It's a perfect blend of film diary and academic assessment, detailing Corless' relationship with Portuguese cinema, particularly that of Gomes, and then contextualization and theory of the work. It's an easy and enjoyable read, conceived with passion and fascination in equal measure.
The main extra on the disc (alongside the original trailer) is Gomes' 2006 short Canticle Of All Creatures (Cântico das Criaturas), which is absolutely stunning. It's impossible to say exactly what the film is about. It opens with a troubadour singing 'Song Of Brother Sun', composed by St. Francis of Assisi in 1224. We're then transported to 1212 where St. Francis' awakes in the Umbrian woods, unaware of his senses and calling. A Nun helps to recollect his memory while the animals of the world fight for his attentions. Godard's quote acutely reviews this film too. It's literally life, life across centuries and species, condensed into twenty thrilling minutes. Essential.
Our Beloved Month Of August is released on DVD on September 26th, courtesy of Second Run.