Further thoughts on the year’s most radical film. By BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

Our Beloved Month of August may just be the most radical film showing at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. A heady mixture of fiction and documentary (and both at the same time), Miguel Gomes evokes the nostalgia of painful summer love in the Portuguese countryside with considerable verve. And in the process, Gomes may have set up a revolutionary template on how to film a community when the director is an outsider (or even an insider). A moving, languid dream of a movie, this is a stunning piece of filmmaking.

The film’s first hour or so is about a community in pastoral Portugal. It’s an ethnographic document of a community, with considerable focus on the community’s rituals, legends, characters, and music. In that sense, we get to know the setting before any sort of authorial intervention can take place. But a fictional narrative slowly emerges out of this carefully set-up milieu. Three musicians – a solo father, his daughter Tania, and a cousin Heider play together in a traveling band. The cousin and his family are visiting from France, and there’s considerable attraction between the Heider and Tania. This budding romance helps rupture the father and daughter’s somewhat interesting relationship. A narrative becomes a kind of pastoral coming-of-age meeting a hard-edged tale of time passing.

But the interplay between the fiction and the documentary means the ‘real-life’ of the village plays itself out in the fictional film. For example, the lovers walk past a Catholic parade previously filmed as a town ritual, other musicians and townspeople appear as themselves in the fictional narrative, the century old town newspaper prints Heider’s story. This gives the fiction a rare kind of authenticity, where the directors haven’t simply gone into a village and constructed a community around their own ideas. The characters seem to belong in amongst the rituals, the traditions of the community. While they appear firmly rooted within this village, Gomes doesn’t romanticise his flawed fictional characters either. He explores themes like modernity and its impact on rural life, Portuguese diasporas, and the breakdown of families. By constructing his narrative with both fictional and documentary elements, Gomes is able to speak to both the local and global in equal measure.

The film also maintains a playful self-reflexivity, and goes to great lengths to make sure we are aware of the construction of the film (thus, purposefully limiting the cinéma-vérité authenticity of the documentary). While this perhaps could have been pared down somewhat, there are some wonderful moments such as the camera crew dancing at a fair during an extreme wide shot, or the beautifully constructed debate at the end among the crew. This whole narrative construction should be watched by filmmakers who intend on trying to film ‘Otherness’.

But there’s also the music. And what music. Gomes shows the aural soundtrack, and the naturalistic sounds to be as important in constructing a community as the bare visuals. And he suggests the music comes from the dirt, the leaves, and water of a community. The eclectic soundtrack (from traditional to contemporary) acts as a Greek chorus, and comments on the narrative. There’s a particularly memorable scene where the real townspeople duel with the fictional characters through music. The pace is slow, and the narrative oblique for a good proportion of the running time, but once you surrender your faculties to it, the film will tie a knot around you. A truly wonderful piece of filmmaking, and highly, highly recommended.

See also:
» Portuguese Férias: Our Beloved Month of August