Make a movie under COVID Lockdown, before the vaccine, was an act of faith and dedication – and also of ambition and necessity. Filmmaking is always stressful, but in The Tsugua Diaries (opening Friday at the Film at Lincoln Center), the fears and dangers of filmmaking in a bubble provide the underlying frenzy for the lyrical flow of a summertime film shoot on a farm in Portugal . Directors Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes rely on some tricky devices to tell the story of this film shoot – but these tricks, far from undermining the emotional drama, amplify it. The result is the most compelling and compelling film about my time in lockdown that I have ever seen.
The first trick is built into the title: “Tsugua” is “August” spelled backwards (same concept used in the original Portuguese title), and as it suggests, the film also runs backwards. Its story is divided into twenty-two days of action (from August 17 to September 10, 2020) and its calendar runs backwards in a film-length countdown – the film begins on the twenty-second day and ends on the first day.
Even the discussion of the reversed calendar plot is odd for those who are spoiler-averse (like me) because putting the end of the story at the beginning of the film changes the very concept of spoilers and suspense. Day Twenty-two is a nightly dance party to “The Night” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons for three young people, one woman and two men – a seemingly romantic triangle that erupts into a couple. The woman dances intensely with the smaller and curly-haired of the two men; the other goes outside into the night while the seemingly new couple kisses in the shadowy, dark room. But there is something strange about the tender embrace of lovers. It takes place amidst the lush, glare of lilacs, blues and greens from somewhere just outside the window – call it film lighting. The main drama of The Tsugua Diaries is the formation and transformation of relationships between these three young adults over the course of production. Still, it’s difficult—actually impossible, inherently—to know where film ends and life begins.
This is the second, even bolder, trick that The Tsugua Diaries is based on. The story is reflexive, leaving no hint of dividing lines between the film’s three plot levels: the relationships between a cast and a crew on a farm in Portugal rolled into one COVID-Lockdown bubble, the film-within-a-film that is created in the bubble and the filming of the film production itself. The real life Fazendeiro and Gomes play directors who go by their own names, as does their co-scenarist Mariana Ricardo, who co-stars is in their bubble. Actors Crista Alfaiate, João Nunes Monteiro (the shorter one) and Carloto Cotta (the taller one) play actors with their own names and in the film-within-a-film also characters with the same names. The rest of the crew members do the same and you can see them at work, filming and recording with cameras and microphones while being filmed and recorded by others’ cameras and microphones.
The premise of The Tsugua Diaries is that the cast and crew gather on a farm in lockdown to make a film on an unspecified premise. It takes a while to get back to the start of production; ingeniously, the concepts floated by Fazendeiro and Gomes find their way into all of the film’s dramatic levels – and they are all disturbed and torn by the nature of isolated life. A breach of hygiene protocol when an actor briefly leaves the farm and heads to a nearby beach for a few hours of fun leads to a superbly dramatic sequence – a group gathering where the cast’s real-life relationships spill over into the real-life drama that they film as the prospect of a fictional love scene is thwarted by the real possibility of a terminal illness.
The audacity of the filmmakers’ reverse chronology is reinforced by their dramatic methods: we see Fazendeiro, Gomes and Ricardo begin without a set script. We see them bring the cast and crew together with the sole intention of making a film that focuses on Crista, João and Carloto. The action that they then design for the trio is based on who and what is available on the farm – and revolves around practical activities and physical work. They find a tractor, and there’s a scene (bright, happy) involving a trip around the property; One of the court quintet’s dogs goes missing and the group goes in search of him. there’s a swimming pool that’s filthy with brackish water and the cast joins the crew to clean it up; The actors order a shipment of butterflies and build them a cabin-sized cage. Fazendeiro is pregnant (she and Gomes are life partners in the film, as they are in real life), and when she heads to the ultrasound, the actors are left to their own devices to write the scene of the day – in which she choose to avoid singing a popular song because they are aware of the copyright implications.
Moreover, these very methods are built into the film’s fabric – one of the longest and most succinct scenes is a living room conference where the actual compositional methods, the shaping of character and drama through physical tasks, are debated, criticized, defended. This scene — in which the actors express their frustration at having to perform without regard for character psychology — anticipates and deftly transcends the viewer’s own disappointed expectations through the psychological dimensions of the discussion itself. (The point will be for another day amplified in a conflict sparked by a pair of socks playing an outsize role in an actor’s preparations.) Strange as the filmmakers’ improvisational methods, based on practicalities, may seem, the drama that bursts out of coping with smaller ones Chores and everyday necessities are intense – nowhere more so than when it comes to what’s for breakfast.
It’s all drama in The Tsugua Diaries, and not just because of the lockdown: the film focuses on the very fact of cinema itself, on the intrinsic existential pressures placed on ordinary plots by the act of filming. The film’s taut yet graceful nature conveys a sense of wonder and terror of laden banalities; The action is filmed in a quiet but focused style that combines long takes that sweep across the action in tilts and turns like the strokes of a brush, tense static shots, and quiet walks that reflect the simple and heartfelt joy of coming together defiantly and to work together from dire circumstances.
The Tsugua Diaries is Fazendeiro’s first feature film as a director; Gomes is a veteran who has combined documentary and fiction, ordinary practicality and brazen theatricality in his previous films – including Our Beloved Month of August, Taboo and the massive political trilogy Arabian Nights. Here, in The Tsugua Diaries, he and Fazendeiro push these opposing notions to ingenious new extremes of connection. With its emphasis on the personal and aesthetic challenges of filming anything at all, and heightening that built-in drama through the fears and pressures of the pandemic, The Tsugua Diaries ushers in a new genre: call it bubblecore.