Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’s The Tsugua Diaries
The film feels as warm as the Portuguese climate. Time waxes and wanes, structure loses shape and coherence in the sunshine. If nothing else, this is a luxurious watch.
The Tsugua Diaries
The isolated, low, thumping bass line introduction to “The Night” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons heralds the start of an intimate house party for three in the opening scene of Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’s The Tsugua Diaries (2021). Actors Crista Alfaiate, Carloto Cotta, and João Nunes Monteiro dance around the living room as the lights dim and neon purple lamps start to glow mysteriously through the windows from outside. In a mostly unstructured, plotless film, one of the few indications of narrative appears in these early moments—Carloto eyes Crista and João growing closer from afar and the tension of the group’s dynamic begins to take shape as Valli sings, “If the day could last forever / you would fall in love completely.”
And what if days could last forever? In the month of August they certainly come close, as summer light lingers into late evening and time seems to warp in the heat. It is this sentiment that Fazendeiro and Gomes explore in their cryptic yet deceptively simple film, unwinding the lazy, hazy month backwards (as the Tsugua, August written backwards, in the title suggests). Beginning with the party on day twenty-two, colorful title cards signal the days passing in reverse. As the film counts down for the viewer, its content regresses in its own progressive way—decaying fruit becomes ripe once again, plans are made for the events that have already happened, and friendships bloom despite earlier tensions. The month gradually returns to its starting point, leading the viewer back through the days preceding the party and building a loose narrative from this unusual chronology.
Ostensibly it is a “pandemic film,” meaning it was shot during the pandemic, and its plot partially concerns COVID-19. The film speaks to the period of malaise and uncertainty felt by many over the course of a summer spent in lockdown, albeit a considerably idyllic one. Characters wile away the days building a butterfly sanctuary in a makeshift greenhouse, knocking wood together and carrying plants to and fro. Shot on lush 16 mm, the film feels as warm as the Portuguese climate and is rich with the vibrancy of the local flora and fauna. Time waxes and wanes, structure loses shape and coherence in the sunshine. If nothing else, this is a luxurious watch.
But then, a rupture. On day thirteen, the film exposes its own construction, and the work of Crista, Carloto, and João as actors is made explicit in an almost documentarian style. Where the film once focused on the three of them lost in their tranquil summer, now crew members, and even Fazendeiro and Gomes themselves, appear in front of the camera to discuss the project’s development. The film takes on a meta narrative to further elucidate its point—that filmmaking, as is life, is about the quotidian means of things happening, rather than an end result. Why not start at the end and find your way back to the beginning? The construction of The Tsugua Diaries almost seems to allow time to expand, to invite new possibilities into an established, immovable structure.
Ultimately, The Tsugua Diaries is a film about celebrating process. It asks what happens when we see action after consequence, tasks after results. As a filmmaking exercise, it invites a new kind of fluidity into creativity, one that allows filmmaker, actor, and viewer to not expect linear progress and therefore not reach for a final goal or aim. Within the film itself, Gomes explains that it’s not about “the question of what a character will do, what their life is like,” or having “to solve this or that.” This open-endedness causes tension among the cast who struggle somewhat with the overall aimlessness of the project, searching for definition where there was never meant to be any. In one scene, the three actors meet with the directors to discuss their concerns and express their need for greater clarity and structure in their scenes, yet Gomes and Fazendeiro plow on, encouraging their actors to embrace simplicity.
The daily chores for the cast continue, but the pandemic seeps further into the film’s narrative as Carloto is reprimanded for going surfing on his day off and leaving the crew’s compound where they have been isolating together for the shoot. Fazendeiro and Gomes’s personal lives also blend seamlessly into the work as Fazendeiro, pregnant during shooting, is encouraged by her doctors to rest for the final weeks of the project, and earlier shots of her lying down are suddenly explained. Whether or not some of these elements were fabrications or actually did occur, they all contribute to the intrigue of the film as a document of collaboration, a film that openly discloses the terms of its making in order to rebuild ideas around what cinema can be. For the directors, the suggestion that their filmmaking should be more rigid and controlled is worth rejecting at every turn so that the film can embrace an almost post-structuralist approach, reconfiguring the basic hierarchies of cause and effect to give it a liberating disunity.
As a pandemic film that does not focus on the dangerous realities of the virus, it also posits everyday life as fundamentally cinematic. The habits brought about by lockdowns, for many, were a new way of living that quickly became commonplace, something that this film feels attuned to. Exactly how films made during and about this period of time will come to shape the cinematic landscape is still to be determined, but The Tsugua Diaries is an interesting example given its acknowledgement of COVID-19 within its escapist reverie, rather than either ignoring it entirely or focusing on it heavily. It captures something light and freeing about a difficult period, taking inspiration from the warped nature of time in lockdown to reconfigure a filmmaking practice.
This sense of playfulness and creativity extends to the visual language of the film, which often embraces colorful artificial light as a counterbalance to the soft natural light that otherwise infuses the film. In one particularly beautiful scene, the red, green, and purple lights that warm the butterfly house become a kaleidoscope of multicolored stars seen through a telescope, spinning and swirling across the sky. A folksy, guitar-plucked refrain provides an intimate and calming score for the moment that sees Crista, Carloto and João share some quieter reflection together on the beauty of everything around them.
The Tsugua Diaries certainly invites a degree of reflection as well as attempts at decoding its more enigmatic qualities on behalf of the viewer, but the need to find a tangible answer within this sunkissed portrait of a movie within a movie is exactly what the filmmakers are working against. “There’s nothing for them to solve,” Gomes says in the film, referring to his actors as much as the audiences, it seems, who will have the chance to bask in this beguiling, blissful puzzle.