By Robert Koehler

2020 may go down as The Year From Hell, but at least it gave us The Tsugua Diaries. Rudely interrupted by the COVID pandemic in proceeding with not one, but two productions—Savagery and Grand Tour—Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes opted to do exactly the opposite of what everyone, including undoubtedly the Portuguese Film Commission, expected: they went and made a movie, deciding, just like the NBA, to create a bubble environment (at a farmhouse compound near the Atlantic coast) and hope for the best. This would include the crew being prepped under the film commission’s COVID guidelines by an official in a hazmat suit and face shield. The action might even include lips-on-lips kissing. And, to add to the degree of difficulty, Fazendeiro was several months into her pregnancy with her and Gomes’ first child, with the mounting concern that the birth may be premature. This is one movie that proclaims that pandemics may come and go, and life goes on, but cinema is here to stay.

Though nobody was infected, actor Carloto Cotta (from Gomes’ Tabu [2012]) committed a significant misdemeanour by slipping out of the Tsugua bubble one day to surf at a nearby beach, a fact we know because of the film’s two narrative strategies. The first is what might be called Full-Disclosure Storytelling, in which a love-triangle story enacted by Cotta and fellow actors Crista Alfaiate (previously seen in Arabian Nights [2015]) and João Nunes Monteiro—they’re always referred to by their first names—blends into the filmmaking realities around them, until any border separating the two is dissolved. Cotta’s most dramatic scene is a juicy exchange involving the cast and crew debating his bad behaviour, highlighting the risks and the ethical line he possibly crossed (Gomes’ calm dismissal of said risks is of definite, counterintuitive interest). These aren’t mere clever postmodern antics: rather, this scene documents how movie crews have coped with COVID, lending The Tsugua Diaries time-capsule value as a case study in how to get things done during a pandemic.

Speaking of time, the manipulation of same defines the film’s second narrative basket: call it Reverse-Chronology Storytelling, in which the shoot’s final day (Day 22) appears first, and Day 1 appears last. (Each day is presented on intertitle cards, varying in colour from tiffany blue to rust orange.) The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end, and herein lies the film’s beating heart and poignancy. Dismissing storytelling as some kind of archaic methodology that should be discarded has become all too trendy, particularly on the experimental side of the cinema business: the self-identified “Central Committee” of The Tsugua Diaries—Fazendeiro, Gomes, and co-writer Mariana Ricardo—would violently disagree with that faulty notion. By reversing the story construction, the Central Committee draws more attention to the story itself, compelling the viewer to consider and value narrative for its own sake.

For example, in the film’s opening minutes, Carloto, Crista, and João (all maskless) are dancing together to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ deceptively pop-lite tune “The Night.” Soon after, Carloto glimpses Crista and João making out; thus, a moment of romantic suspense. What will happen next to the threesome? Will Carloto attack João in a jealous rage? Will he run away? What will Crista do? We can only imagine, because after this we’re into Day 21. Now (or then?), the trio is in a cranky mood, driven by Carloto’s bad night of sleep (blame it on mosquitoes), and João opposes the idea of throwing a party, claiming that he’s shy and gets embarrassed around others. Already, the reverse-narrative construct is working well: what one character thinks he’ll do may not be what he ends up doing, and the viewer can’t be sure what will come next. As the days reverse further, the two men reverse roles, as when João and Carloto, playing pool, say the other man’s dialogue from Day 21. We couldn’t have known it when we watched the earlier (or, if you will, later) scene, but we now see how João ends up appropriating Carloto’s thoughts and vice versa, just as each one may be exchanging roles for Crista’s affections. 

This winding-back process is seldom done in cinema: it’s more common in literature, the obvious example being Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, with its reverse chronology of a love triangle (although Gomes and Fazendeiro deny that Pinter’s work had any influence on their film). Martin Amis also experimented with this form in Time’s Arrow, as did Susan Vreeland in her novel Girl in Hyacinth, while Nabokov frequently liked to treat narrative time as a Moebius strip. The film’s literary sources go further, as the Central Committee is seen discussing the possibilities of a new scene and mentioning a Cesare Pavese story about a threesome of young people (two men, one woman) on summer vacation in the countryside, just like Crista, Carloto, and João. (The title, “The Devil on the Hills,” is never mentioned.) Pavese’s story dwells as much on the setting’s all-encompassing nighttime atmosphere as its sun-drenched warmth, and so does the film, starting at night with “The Night,” with foreshadowing lyrics like “Beware of this promise/Believe what I say” and “The Night begins to turn your head around/And you know you’re gonna lose more than you found.”

Within the context of a playfully narrative feature, The Tsugua Diaries comes close to capturing what moviemaking actually feels like—at least moviemaking as practiced in the free-and-easy manner of Fazendeiro and Gomes. When the actors convey to the filmmakers their worries that the scenes aren’t working, Gomes’ response highlights a fact of life that auteurist critics in particular ignore at their peril: he informs the cast that he, Fazendeiro, and Ricardo are “finding that, overall, it’s been a good performance.” Gomes here demonstrates that he knows that actors drive the action, not directors—a notion that he takes all the way on Day 7, when he must accompany Fazendeiro to a prenatal exam, and tells his actors to direct themselves. How, they ask? “Work it out,” says Gomes—which could be the slogan for every film set.

A global virus has the tendency to either make people recede into their private lives, or force them to create a collective of solidarity. Under the supposed fun and games of The Tsugua Diaries is something as thoughtful and profound as anything I’ve seen in a movie involving Miguel Gomes behind (and, as often as not, in front of) the camera. As a condensed unit of humanity making something of joy together during the worst year in anybody’s living memory, this filmmaking collective is defying the odds, tempting fate, and demonstrating the truth that a group is stronger than any of its individual parts.

This is the film’s serious centre under its surface of palm trees, lush greenery, umbrella pines, playful pets (the five dogs trotting around the house and its grounds deservedly receive screen credit), kitchen prep, pool antics, dancing, and more dancing—to say nothing of a goofy slow-motion sequence with the group and a tractor, in which Gomes really gets into it. (You’ve seldom, if ever, seen a director have so much fun in his own movie.) This unbridled pleasure is part of what makes this such an extraordinary project, one addressing some matters that today’s more self-serious artists should keep in mind. The Tsugua Diaries harkens back to Renoir père as well as Matisse’s spirited, lovely Travail et joie painting from his Nice series: art-making as play, celebrating the joy of being alive. Children know this instinctively, and adults forget it. The Tsugua Diaries is a project intended to return serious adult cinemagoers to this childlike state of mind, or least the one where work and pleasure blend together in one.

All of this could only end (and begin) this way: with dancing, bottles of beer, smokes, and “The Night.” For this viewer, these images of nocturnal dancing are already becoming the iconic ones of the pandemic: silhouetted bodies in motion, resisting entropy and a destructive virus, fighting back the only way they know how. Working it, with joy.