The Tsugua Diaries review

The Tsugua Diaries is a perfect summer movie

Shot in beautiful 16mm, this movie about making movies is playful and funny.

Maureen Fazendeiro and​​ Miguel Gomes’s The Tsugua Diaries opens with a dance party. Flashing coloured lights shine outside as characters dance to Franki Valli & the Four Seasons’ bouncy hit, “The Night.” As the music bleeds into nocturnal animal sounds, we see a couple making out in a homemade greenhouse. The film cuts away to mid-day, and it’s Day 21. Structured in reverse, The Tsugua Diaries is a light and self-reflexive film made during and about a movie set in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some scenes are the film within a film, whereas others are the increasingly tense behind-the-scenes workings of a film production on the brink of collapse. 

Working for over two decades in feature films, making movies like My Beloved Month of August, Tabu and his Arabian Nights trilogy, Portuguese filmmaker Gomes has always embraced a sense of spontaneity in his approach to cinema. Often blurring the line between documentary and fiction, his films break the fourth wall. The self-reflexive quality not only brings attention to the creation of the image but also invokes a more playful and exploratory approach to the medium. It emphasizes the collaborative aspect as it pokes fun at the self-seriousness endemic to much arthouse cinema. 

While certainly a cost-effective filmmaking style in an industry with limited funds, it also speaks to a larger tradition within Portuguese cinema that emphasizes the artifice of the medium. It reflects a constant engagement with history, a desire to engage in conversation with a rigid national identity often marked by disappointment and poverty. Compared to most western nations, Portugal only recently escaped a dictatorship — their revolution happened in 1974. At least part of the Portuguese tendency to break the fourth wall feels like a way of confronting disillusionment with lies and illusions propped up by the oppressive state. Exposing the artifice in image creation serves to empower audiences and deflate image-makers. 

The tsugua diaries review
The Tsugua Diaries

The Tsugua Diaries pricks little pinholes into the same romantic notions around cinema: the false promises offered by a peerless, romantic image. The comedy emerges essentially as behind-the-scenes egos brush up against each other as one of the co-directors (played by Gomes) attempts to impose his will on a rebellious and childish cast and crew. While his title affords him authority, it does not gift him with maturity; his main focus for much of the film is to shoot a rather pointless tractor ride. But, in a way, isn’t all cinema pointless? How do ideas of labour intersect with the inherit self-indulgence of artistic creation?

The film’s title inverses “August” and captures a certain magical summer feeling. Despite the griping, misunderstandings and troubles that beset the production, the movie also channels the infinite possibilities of summer, not as a landscape of work and production but of play. The golden crystalline light, the nights that vibrate with animal life capture beautifully that ephemeral feeling of August, as the promise of a perfect summer begins to fade away. 

Maureen Fazendeiro​​ Miguel Gomes

The slight feeling of The Tsugua Diaries also makes for one of the most persuasive arguments for art for art’s sake. Funny and charming, the movie has no pretensions of changing hearts and minds; it’s all about vibes. It captures the medium’s small and truest pleasures: laughs, romance and beauty. In a world that treats the bloated algorithmic monsters of Marvel as the “real” entertainment of the people, Gomes and Fazendeiro counter that narrow reading of filmic pleasure with one that is spontaneous and bereft of grand themes or ideas.

In many ways the perfect summer movie, The Tsugua Diaries channels the warmth and adventure that first drew me to love cinema in the first place. Shot in textured 16mm and featuring an incredible, charismatic cast, it’s a pandemic movie that yearns for the communal rapture of a crowd. ■

The Tsugua Diaries (Dir. Maureen Fazendeiro and​​ Miguel Gomes)

The Tsugua Diaries is screening on July 4 and July 24 as part of Cinéma Public’s Bleu Soir summer series. 

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