There’s just so much summer in “The Tsugua Diaries” — great lashings of sunlight warming and slightly melting every 16mm frame, tangles of hyper-green foliage that seem to sweat in the heat, a generally horny, indolent air of human mischief — that you’d be forgiven for assuming “Tsugua” is some idyllic holiday spot you’ve never heard of, the best-kept secret on the Algarve. As with many elements of Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro’s woozy, insouciant experiment, however, a longer look reveals something both surprising and simple. “Tsugua” is simply “August” spelled backwards, which certainly ties into the film’s humid seasonality, and also clues us into its modus operandi.
Everything unfolds backwards in this film about filmmaking under curious circumstances, only gradually revealing the motivations and points of view driving the enterprise, and playfully withholding any sense of what it might all be about. “The Tsugua Diaries” is mostly about itself: It’s not so much art for art’s sake as for art’s sheer pleasure.
If you happen to notice that the title also binds the film to Gomes’ 2008 comedy “Our Beloved Month of August,” then consider yourself the optimum audience for this bookending feature — Gomes’ first directorial collaboration with offbeat documentarian Fazendeiro (also his life partner) and a veritable puzzle-pack of scrambled clues and connections. In the earlier work, a quasi-fictional film crew led by Gomes headed into rural Portugal to shoot a narrative feature, only for production to grind idly and inexplicably to a halt. Amid this pause, the camera turns to the locals and goings-on of the village in which they’re stranded.
“The Tsugua Diaries” similarly documents (or dramatizes) a film crew in creative limbo, though this time their frustration is rooted in the reality of the COVID pandemic. Filmed under quarantine conditions in August and September last year, it chronicles a 22-day pandemic shoot in a secluded country retreat, in reversed stages of agitation and disarray.
Whether it’s effectively a documentary of its own production or a fictional account of a documentary in progress is foremost among its ambiguities. Nobody involved seems to have a clear idea of what they’re making either, or why. It takes some time for the film to even reveal its hand as a production within a production, following an immediately bewitching introductory dance scene: Two men, Carloto (Carloto Cotta, Gomes’ leading man from “Tabu”) and João (João Nunes Monteiro), and a woman, Crista (Crista Alfaiate), merrily cut a rug to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “The Night” in a darkened room, as lurid, undulating waves of colored light sway across and around them. The dance gives way to an embrace between Crista and João, the atmosphere intimately charged as Carloto looks on.
For a few minutes, it feels like we’ve wandered into an “Y tu mamá también”-style love triangle a few reels in, not least when a “Day 22” title card flashes on screen. We observe the threesome at hot-and-bothered leisure, as they plan the party we’ve just seen, languidly feel their way through the lush rural garden around them, and attempt to build a butterfly house. But as the days roll back, we see they’re not alone. Crew members and delivery people cross the screen and disrupt the idyll, before Gomes and Fazendeiro themselves appear, steering the action with none too certain a hand.
In one scene, several crew members ride a tractor directionlessly across the grounds, hooting with laughter. Immediately after, we hear Gomes pitching the tractor idea to Fazendeiro, who shoots it down as “stupid.” Later on — which is to say, nearer the beginning of the enterprise — a sound recordist expresses his exasperation over quarantine protocol. The growing impression is of a project mired in chaos and confusion from the outset, gradually giving way to a kind of resigned peace. Did everyone just abandon ship and leave the actors to it? Whether wholly performed or partially authentic, “The Tsugua Diaries” wittily evokes the volatile mood swings of lockdown — how concentrated time with the same people can yield either irritation or intensified closeness from day to day, particularly in a sticky-hot summer haze.
After the sweeping ambition and execution of “Tabu” and his epic “Arabian Nights” triptych, it’s a surprise and a delight to see Gomes working again on this kind of modest, doodly scale. Yet the spirit of collaboration here is palpable. Whether or not there’s any truth to the on-screen conflict between his and Fazendeiro’s differing docu-fiction sensibilities, there are multiple, contrasting facets to the film’s elegant, positively bejeweled formalism. “The Tsugua Diaries” ends (or begins) on a virtual restaging of that Valli-soundtracked dance party, this time with many more bodies in luminous motion. For all the tetchy lockdown sparring in between these scenes, there’s finally something to be said for togetherness.