Two films in one, with postmodern rewards aplenty for the patient viewer.
Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is two films in one. Its first half purports to document life in the Portuguese interior.
Here we see different bands performing in a variety of settings, a local women's radio show being broadcast, the Arganil newspaper (nicknamed 'the family letter') being printed, a fox attacking chickens, a boar being butchered, the fire department on patrol, motorbikes converging on a bikers' convention and various religious and civic processions under way, while hearing tales of parochial xenophobia, passionate murder and miraculous healing – and we are introduced to Paulo "Miller", an unemployed, feckless alcoholic whose repeated leaps from a high bridge into the rivers below have turned him into an unlikely local legend.
As an evocation of a rural community's rhythms and rituals, all this seems not so very far (despite the Portuguese setting) from Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously – but there is something else going on in Gomes' film. Occasional scenes show Gomes himself messing about with his (actual) crew, or being told off by his (fictive) producer (played by Joaquim Cervalho) for deviating from the screenplay and failing to audition any actors – and so it gradually emerges that what we have been watching is not so much a documentary as what Gomes calls 'extras', while the director, when not playing quoits, has been scouting locations, seeking out a cast of 'real people', and absorbing some local colour, all in preparation for the film that he hopes to realise.
Sure enough, the second half of Our Beloved Month of August mostly comprises scenes from the feature that Gomes supposedly goes on to make – a coming-of-age melodrama starring locals (and 'producer' Cervalho as a controlling father) and incestuously incorporating many of the Arganil sights and sounds explored earlier. Like Eugène Green's The Portuguese Nun – which was also made by production company O Som e a Fúria – Our Beloved Month of August uses the knowing artifice of its film-within-a-film structure to approach a transcendent kind of truth about the cross-fertilising interrelationship between fiction and reality.
At the same time, like Alain Resnais' On Connaît la Chanson or Xavier Giannoli's The Singer, Gomes' film discovers universal verities about love and loss in the popular musical forms that it appropriates.
Our Beloved Month of August is playful and perplexing in equal measure – but it is a pity that, at 147 minutes in duration, this film of two halves lasts almost as long as two separate features, and feels that way too. In a clever-clever coda, Gomes is shown telling off audio man Vasco Pimentel for allowing the 'phantom sounds' of local tunes to seep into his location recordings – but by this point many will have concluded that the film's editors (Gomes himself and co-writer Telmo Churro) are far more deserving of censure. Still, there are postmodern rewards aplenty here for the patient viewer.
Know nothing about it beyond the fact that it has won several awards.
Mesmerised, mystified… and a bit bored.
This metafilm playfully – but slowly - reveals the layered truths behind a clichéd melodrama, as well as the conventional nature of reality itself.