Wednesday, June 29, 2011
I’ve started and stopped this review so many times it’s like I’m practicing Kegels while peeing. Fitting, too, considering my subject, a fictionalized documentary (think Through the Olive Trees) about its own crew searching for inspiration to film the outright fiction of its last act after a dead financier imperils the project, all of us—me, director Miguel Gomes, the fictional characters played by a fire warden and a hockey player he finds in central Portugal—spinning our wheels until we discover how to adapt to our obstacles and get on with our lives, or art, which are so inextricable in Our Beloved Month of August that you wonder if Gomes’ creation myth is as fabricated as the naturalism he so carefully cultivates in the editing bay, like a homeless-looking actor’s spectacularly disheveled coif. Whatever the factual truth, the film’s as dry as sandstone and just as porous, sparking less in the regional portrait of its ostensible documentary or the 35 Shots of Rum-style family drama of its film-within-the-film than in the twilight between, a self-conscious odyssey into the frustrating transcendence of creating art.
While nobody ever so much as blinks onscreen lest that be interpreted as a big ole wink, the cast—comprised of the working crew from Gomes on down to his casting director and the residents and tourists floating about the summer music festival they’ve chosen to film, all playing themselves and some playing other characters—sprouts two breakout stars. The first is Sónia Bandeira, the aforementioned fire warden who spends her days dancing and singing and patiently searching for something that may or may not be on her horizon until, at the very moment Gomes spots his own spark, she becomes our lead, Tania, a young girl falling for her cousin, a cute young hockey player cast as her bandmate/romantic hero, while inching away from her widower father, played by a producer. It’s such a delirious film that the meet-cute occurs between the actors, Sónia and Fabio, in this double-exposed montage, while the first kiss, in a moment much more stylized, the screen blinded by sunlight like the hazy memory of nostalgia, takes place between their characters, Tania and Helder. Playing herself playing her character, Sónia gives the Citizen Kane of self-conscious performance, constantly breaking character before she can pull it together to begin a scene—or maybe she’s just laughing. The film grooves on the ambiguity: When she looks toward us with tears in her eyes, it’s a moving climax, but it’s nothing compared to when she bursts into laughter a second later, her face still wet with eyedrops.
The other star is sound technician Vasco Pimentel, whose work offscreen compiling the most detailed and vital soundtrack since Country Strong is just as compelling as his work onscreen playing the clueless sound guy recording phantom noises that pop up here and there, most notably—aside from the brilliant credits sequence, a comic final argument that captures the entire film—in an eerie bit where two of the crew members use their shadows to turn a far-off pylon into a grotesque face while we hear the disembodied chanting of the winds in the hazy blue of twilight. If you listen close you can hear Herzog directing Popol Vuh: “Weirder!”
You'd think a film that spends most of its time documenting its own creation would lend itself to guidepost exposition, but Gomes plays it close, letting the film lure us down its murky paths. From the seemingly meandering longueurs of the first hour to the equally aimless melodrama of the second, Our Beloved Month of August is a full portrait of the artistic process. Adaptation is everywhere, from the intertwined oral legends of the townspeople to the music they make, and the layered structure glances at the cosmic with all the pretension of a chicken. It’s all a game to Gomes, his life and his art. All it takes to turn one into the other is perspective. That or a fortuitous metaphor about peeing.