Film Review: Our Beloved Month of August

A mesmerizing intermingling of life and art, fact and fiction.

Our Beloved Month of August is the second film in recent weeks (the other being Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl) to prove that Portuguese cinema is alive and well and very thought-provoking.

While the idea of a travelogue or documentary about Portugal might not excite art-house customers, filmgoers should know that Our Beloved Month of August is much more than what it first appears. Good word of mouth will help, despite “August” being part of the title of this September release.

Director Miguel Gomes starts his film with a “Traveltalks”-style look at the town of Arganil: We see Pardieros festival concerts and religious pageants, as well as the mundane, everyday activities of the villagers. At the same time as we are enjoying this languid coverage, the movie’s crew members begin bickering about what to film or not film. Apparently, the production was supposed to be built around a narrative that failed to find proper funding, and it became a lower-budget documentary. But is this really true or is Gomes toying with us? Increasingly, we are drawn into the “behind-the-scenes” drama of Gomes, his producer, his crew, and the people he had wanted to cast. Eventually, a story does emerge about two young musicians having a love affair. But we are never sure what is meant to be a story, a story about a story, or a playful and phony story about a story.

While mockumentaries are fairly common these days, Our Beloved Month of August stands out because it never lets the audience know exactly what we are experiencing. The ambiguity (and slow pace) could frustrate viewers expecting something more straightforward, yet this approach should prove refreshing for those who never thought documentaries represented something “real” in the first place (and that fiction films observe their own truth by “documenting” whatever is part of the mise-en-scène, however stylized). Gomes is following in the tradition of early Alain Resnais, not creating so much a mockumentary but a meditation of the film medium, its power and its limitations. Also in the Resnais tradition, the movie is extremely well-photographed, designed, edited and scored.

Our Beloved Month of August is deceptively simple...and quietly amazing.