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A Second Look: Fusing reality and fiction in 'Our Beloved Month of August'

While filming a feature film, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes says he lost funding but kept the cameras rolling, capturing a rural area's day-to-day living.

January 05, 2013|By Dennis Lim
(Cinema Guild )

As a collaborative endeavor, cinema is especially prone to happy accidents. Rarely has a film demonstrated the possibilities of happenstance as vividly as the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' "Our Beloved Month of August," new to DVD from Cinema Guild.

With a handful of shorts and three features to his name, Gomes, 41, is one of the most original and exciting voices in world cinema today. (Three of his shorts are included on the "Beloved Month" DVD.) A defining attribute of Gomes' films is that they defy classification, partly because they refuse to stay for long in any one genre.

His latest, "Tabu," which opens in Los Angeles this month, is his most widely acclaimed movie: an ingenious shape-shifter that begins as a deadpan drama in contemporary Lisbon and ends up a colonial-era romance in faraway Africa.

"Our Beloved Month of August" (2008), Gomes' second feature, is also a film of two halves, part documentary and part fiction, although it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Its formal complexity stems directly from its complicated back story, a version of which is encapsulated in the movie.

As Gomes tells it, he had planned to shoot a fiction film in Arganil, in rural Portugal, against the backdrop of the region's summer rituals and pastimes. When the funding evaporated, instead of calling it quits, he and his crew simply began to document the people and places around them: the local lore, the religious pageants, the eager amateur bands performing nightly in the town square.

With this footage in hand, Gomes reconceived the film, and what he did, in effect, is come up with a form flexible and expansive enough to encompass a streamlined version of the original script as well as his documentary material, while providing some glimpses of the movie's troubled production.

"Our Beloved Month of August" is a tricky and beguiling fusion of documentary and fiction, not least because it so casually breaks the rules of both. At almost any given moment, it could be any number of things: a musical, a travelogue, a portrait of a place and its people, a self-reflexive film about filmmaking, a documentary about the creation of a fiction.

Along with his collaborators, Gomes appears in the movie, at times wielding his doorstop of a screenplay as a sight gag.

Gomes has described "Our Beloved Month" as an attempt "to put everything in front of the camera," including the camera itself. The curious effect of this apparent process of demystification is to render the whole thing even more magical.

At a certain point, fiction takes over. People we have come to recognize as documentary subjects resurface as characters in an unfolding melodrama, and the film's laid-back ethnography gives way to the improbably absorbing story of the ties among a father, his daughter and her cousin, all members of a pop band.

The desire for fiction is a constant in Gomes' films — it is this yearning that conjures up a warped fairy tale in his first feature, "The Face You Deserve" (2004), and a swooning silent-movie-ish reverie in "Tabu." Like the French New Wave master Jacques Rivette, Gomes often enlists his characters and the audience in a kind of mutual quest, a search for the story that is being told.

And like Thailand's Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"), Gomes understands that stories about stories are not simply postmodernist metafiction but might speak above all to a primal hunger.

In one of several telling comic scenes in "Our Beloved Month of August," a producer bursts in on Gomes and his crew, knocking over the intricate pattern of dominoes they have painstakingly arranged for the opening credits.

It's a joke that also sums up Gomes' philosophy on the value of unpredictability: You can control only so much in the filmmaking process, and many movies, whether fiction or documentary, would be more interesting if they did not start out knowing exactly where they would end up.

"Our Beloved Month of August" reaches its emotional peak with a shot of its heroine tearing up and then, before our eyes, breaking out into hysterics. Is she crying or laughing? And is she in or out of character? Could she be both?

It's an emblematic moment in a film that reminds us that the categories we so often apply to movies are not always mutually exclusive.

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