Film Review: Fiction, Nonfiction and Incest in Our Beloved Month of August

A White Tank Top Review

The Northwest Film Forum representative who introduced Our Beloved Month of August mentioned that the director, Miguel Gomes, was formerly a writer for Cahiers du Cinema. Luckily, Mr. Gomes was there to interrupt him and say that he hadn’t worked for Cahiers but, instead, a “shitty Portuguese paper.” This underdog spirit informs the work Gomes was about to present, after apologizing for its length with a rueful laugh.

As the lights went down, the lingering image of the director’s hooded eyes and slow smile faded straight into the face of a fox prowling a hen house. It was a neat metaphor, as we would feel like those delirious chickens for the next two and half hours.

And, trust me, you feel the two and half hours go by. Why?

Because Gomes has a different idea of a central conflict than most filmmakers — he asserts that it doesn’t have to come through plot, but that it can be through style. After ninety minutes, most films would be reaching their climax but, in Our Beloved Month in August, ninety minutes just marks a shift in emphasis from documentary to fiction. Only after being thoroughly submerged in the goings on in Arganil (a small town in the interior of Portugal) do the actors fully begin their roles.

Read the rest of the review after the jump.

Though hard to pin down exactly, viewing Our Beloved Month of August is rather like watching a film and the “making of” DVD extra concurrently. While Gomes claimed, “I cannot recall exactly what happened,” it seems that the film was shot over two summers, for twelve weeks total. The first summer, there was not enough money to pay actors, so Gomes and crew just filmed the locals during the Carnival atmosphere of August in rural Portugal. In a droll scene, Gomes can’t be pulled away from his game of quoits when volunteer actresses first appear (though they eventually get roles).

To pick out some details from the small town portraiture: fire trucks, fireworks, foam parties, and a peculiar focus on boar testicles. And what Arganiles lack in urban sophistication, they make up with relentless church processions.

One delightful resident is Paulo the River Kid, who may or may not make an annual dive from a high bridge into a shallow river and whose leg may or may not have been maimed for borrowing a jacket from some Moroccans without their permission.

The following summer, with more funding secured, Gomes returned to film the (at least somewhat more) fictional part of Our Beloved Month of August. Tânia (Sonia Bandeira; shown above) sings in a traveling band. Her creepy father is the keyboardist and her newly arrived city cousin Hélder (Fabio Oliveira, sporting a Cristiano Ronaldo-style euro-mullet) plays guitar.

The saccharine music of the film, performed by many bands, sounds like a continuous karaoke contest (somewhat disturbingly, Gomes says he listened to “thousands” of these songs in preparation for filming). My favorite is the tragic “Som de Crystal,” about a man whose spouse is bored because he’s always at an afterhours bar — it culminates with the lament “I turned my wife into a streetwalker.”

While it might sound a little gross that a relationship develops between Tânia and Hélder, she is choosing the less incestuous option available to her (the potential lechery of her father is the subject of an unforgettable, angry freestyle battle between two vocalists, with accordion players laying down the beat). The young couple’s deliberately overexposed first kiss on the bridge is blindingly brilliant before the camera pulls back to extreme long shot of a procession of stilt walkers, one of whom may or may not have given Hélder a high five as he passes.

I could feel out the fictional parts of the film more by the speed than the content — at times the plot and dialogue clip right along, probably because screenwriters are much more efficient storytellers than the populace of Arganil. 

While the whole trip is a bit exhausting, the reality is that a short film on Tânia and Hélder’s liaison or a travelogue on August in Arganil would not be as affecting on their own. The overlaps and recursivity are what make the film special (and, just think, Gomes chuckled that he was considering a longer version at one point).

With the money Warner Bros. paid Hans Zimmer for composing two hours of groaning noises for the Inception soundtrack, Gomes could probably make films for the rest of his life. But the good news is he’ll do it anyway, with or without financial backing.


Find more film, poetry and sports commentary at Kirk Michael's personal blog, http://thewhitetanktop.blogspot.com.