Our Beloved Month of August Review
Second Run have a habit of releasing singular works and their latest disc, Our Beloved Month of August, is no different. It’s the 2008 feature from Portuguese filmmaking Miguel Gomes, an amalgam of drama and documentary that takes in music, romance and languorous summer evenings. Yet as with so many Second Run releases, such a simple description can only go so far. The riches contained are not of the kind that can be summed up succinctly, nor will a few words prove enough to entice the casual bystander. Our Beloved Month of August is a slippery beast, mutating before the viewer as it seeks to find its own distinctive shape. What follows will attempt to get to grips with Gomes’ film, but the strongest recommendation is simply to head off and watch for yourself. After all, if one label has given faith in the blind buy then surely Second Run is it.
We begin with a ragtag collection of images and moments which, to our eyes, appear entirely unconnected. A fox eyes up some chickens and pounces. A group of young-ish individuals set up trails of dominos. It turns out they’re a film crew and their director is named Gomes, but more of that in a moment. We head down a makeshift rural road pursued by a fire engine and bobble on a river as a lifeguard heads towards us in his kayak. Mostly there is music, lots of music, played by brass bands and MOR bands, each introduced via a subtitle letting us know their name and the village they are playing in. For this is the titular beloved month of August wherein the Portuguese - and the occasional foreigner - head to their hometowns for the holidays. Festivities reign as does frolicking in the sunshine, all captured by Gomes and his camera’s curious eye. You see it is all connected, albeit in mosaic form: a Portuguese summer of fireworks, biker festivals and plenty of song.
Our Beloved Month of August is at its best when it simply observes and obeys the rhythms of its subjects and the season. As the 144-minute running time suggests, this isn’t a film in any particular kind of hurry. It’s happy just to hang out with its participants and enjoy the sunshine and after hours entertainment as much as they do. In this respect it recalls Second Run’s summer offering of 2006, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, another languid effort that perfectly captured that time of the year and its effects on folk. The songs which pepper the ‘narrative’ serve as its glue, as do the various voice-over ramblings which interrupt the tunes (or vice versa). There are tales of sheep testicles and murder, though these two examples perhaps suggest too much of a baroque tone…
Cropping up from time to time we have Gomes the onscreen director, adorned in a striking combination of bright red t-shirt and white cap, more often than not encountering difficulties with the film he is making. He’s going off-script, we learn, and filming too much that has little consequence to the storytelling. Needless to say, it’s hard not to draw a direct line between this film-within-a-film and Our Beloved Month of August itself. Are we to assume then that the real-life Gomes has also gone off-script and that this documentary unfolding slowly before us isn’t really meant to be a documentary at all? Certainly, these interpolations prevent a strict non-fiction from being applied as do develops in the second half where, equally slowly, the film selects itself a main character and goes about telling a story of fleeting, but heartbreaking, summer love.
Yet the documentary elements shouldn’t be seen as inconsequential additions, rather they’re the very key to Our Beloved Month of August. In many ways this is a film of two halves - one non-fiction, the other fiction - but without there being a perfect division. (Just as narrative elements invade the first half, so too the casual observations remain during the second.) To an extent it is safe therefore to describe the opening hour or so as the exposition. Not of any kind of storytelling, but of mood and milieu. Rather than throw us straight into its fittingly slight tale of summer romance, Gomes has decided that we must first understand the Portuguese holiday traditions: the homecoming, the rituals, the significance of song, not to mention the more obviously lighter factors. And how better to establish this than through a strictly non-narrative means? It’s as though Gomes has made two separate films yet somehow figured out how to unify them into a seamless whole. Filmmakers have, of course, made companion features and documentaries in the past (think of Ron Peck’s Fighters and Real Money, another Second Run release, or perhaps Jia Zhangke and his two films centred around the Three Gorges Dam, Dong and Still Life) but it’s less easy to think of a genuine amalgam as so fully achieved here.
Indeed, the fictional element is allowed to simply to come into play once it feels ready. At first we’re not even sure if this latest character is just another of Our Beloved Month’s subjects or someone more significant. Furthermore, having entered the narrative so quietly she can proceed in much the same vein. In other words this is a story that doesn’t need to make any grand statements or possess any massive drive. Comparisons have been made to Eric Rohmer (most likely The Green Ray, Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach) but even this applies too much pressure on Gomes’ summer romance. It’s as slight and fleeting as it should be, more important to its participants than it is to us observers. We are invited to see it as just another part of the festivities, tied to the sunshine and music and just as impermanent.
It’s this easy blend of fact and fiction that left me a little disappointed with those more self-reflexive elements involving the fictional Gomes. The mixture is assured enough that I don’t feel we need any guiding hand or wink towards the camera to help us navigate these waters. Sometimes - as with the early dominos sequence - there’s a feeling of simply trying too hard in a film that, everywhere else, is perfectly relaxed. It’s a rare misstep and arguably a minor flaw given it figures only minutely in a two-and-half-hour venture, but nonetheless one worth mentioning. One of the main pleasures of Our Beloved Month of August is its seeming simplicity; these tricksier aspects only serve to disrupt its flow. With that said it would be unfair to conclude a review on a negative note given how these pleasures do shine through. This is one of those films to relinquish to, to simply experience. Surrender yourself to a couple of hours of Portuguese summertime, no matter the time of year.
Our Beloved Month of August arrives onto British DVD courtesy of Second Run. The disc follows their usual standard, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio onto a dual-layered disc encoded for all regions. As a recent production we should, of course, expect a high quality presentation and this is exactly what we get. The film comes framed at 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced, and utilising a pristine print presenting no signs of damage or deterioration. Both colours and detail are strong, ably capturing the summer moods. Equally crisp is the soundtrack, here presented in its original stereo format with optional (and new and improved) English subtitles.
The extras take the form of Gomes’ 2006 short Canticle of All Creatures and a 16-page booklet containing a lengthy piece from Kieron Corless and a brief note from the director. The former is an intriguing piece, combining fact, fiction and music much like the main feature albeit with a more stylised narrative content. As with Our Beloved Month of August a simple summation really doesn’t do it justice, so just press play and let it take you on its own unique little journey. The booklet essay by Corless, meanwhile, is a wonderful addition, ably combining background on Gomes with analysis of the film at hand plus a few personal touches and a miniature guide to current Portuguese cinema. If the latter whets your appetite then make sure you’re aware that Second Run have Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava in the works, whilst his debut Blood has also been released by SR as has his masterpiece Colossal Youth on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema imprint.