At once laid-back and tricky, Our Beloved Month of August—the second feature by 38-year-old Portuguese filmmaker and former film critic Miguel Gomes—is neither narrative nor documentary. It’s even less a fusion of the two than a vacation from both, or any, categories.
As befits its go-with-the-flow tempo, Our Beloved Month comes with a convoluted backstory strategically floated by Gomes at various festivals, notably Cannes’ 2008 Directors’ Fortnight, where his movie had its international premiere: The filmmaker arrived in the backwoods village of Arganil, script in hand and crew at the ready, only to discover that his funding was gone. Undeterred, he went on to film anyway—documenting whatever came to hand, including the inner workings of his own production, until he figured out a way to coax a simplified version of his original scenario out of this cinematic doodling, which he filled in the following summer.
True or not, this narrative provides a handy roadmap for navigating Gomes’s intent: Everything in his leisurely 147-minute movie is a performance, including the movie itself. Most of the performers are amateur musicians (or musicians doubling as performers). The film documents many concerts in Arganil’s town square, as well as drunken karaoke and religious pageants. Local stories are recounted from differing perspectives. Meanwhile, the film crew wanders around, dramatizing their roles: “You’re filming things that I thought weren’t in the script,” an alleged producer complains to Gomes (playing director in an eye-searing red jacket and blindingly white poor-boy cap).
Although the producer is upset that Our Beloved Month is being made without actors, it’s actually being made after the fashion of Gomes’s countryman, Pedro Costa, as a movie in which everyday people dramatize their lives, or at least play themselves talking. Gomes, however, is more casual and less sanctimonious than Costa. In their fondness for ritual and earnest confusion, the denizens of Arganil suggest the comic villagers in a Czech new wave film. Would-be actors, in effect, audition to be seen auditioning for the movie; at one point, the filmmakers (supposedly?) eavesdrop on a pair of locals drafted into their project who wonder what to make of it.
The first half of Our Beloved Month, which is perhaps Gomes’s first trip to Arganil, largely concerns the search for actors; midway through, a young guy who plays hockey and a young woman working as a fire warden—maybe on the verge of a summer fling—emerge as full-fledged characters with new names and wardrobes. Gradually, the movie focuses on their roles in a family band, rife with barely submerged erotic longings and notable for its enthusiastic performances of insipid Euro Pop. Heartfelt cliché fills the air. Taking a leaf from Nashville, Gomes uses these musical performances as a form of Grand Ole Opry, but, unlike the performances in the Altman opus, these are devoid of irony and the performers are played by the equivalent of real hillbillies . . . perhaps.
Transparently a movie about a group of filmmakers who attempt to possess a particular location, Our Beloved Month relaxes into a meditation on the mysteries of place, personality, and process. One is happy to while away the time observing the minutiae of Arganil’s summer festival and equally pleased to become involved in an unfolding family melodrama that involves tales of alien abduction and instances of incest, building up to a wittily produced forest fire. Gomes even manages to involve us in the film’s formal issues when a movie’s worth of clever sound-matching comes to a head in the comic epilogue. The director approaches his soundman, busily recording the audio tone of the forest, to question at length the origin of the “phantom sounds” that have infiltrated the audio track. True to the filmmaker’s beef, one such bit of mysteriously unmotivated music is faintly audible—at least to us.
Seemingly haphazard, Beloved Month winds up an artfully contrived Möbius Strip. In the movie’s emo climax, the lead actress seamlessly segues from apparent tears to hysterical laughter. Is she in or out of character? For all the plot turns and character shifts, that’s the real twist. Gomes, too, has it both ways: It’s impossible to decide whether life imposed itself upon his scenario, or vice versa.