“The Tsugua Diaries,” Reviewed: A Brilliant, Backward-Running Chronicle of COVID Lockdown

Making a film under COVID lockdown, before the vaccine, was an act of faith and devotion—and also of ambition and need. All filmmaking is stressful, but in “The Tsugua Diaries” (which opens Friday at Film at Lincoln Center) the anxieties and dangers of filmmaking in a bubble provide the underlying frenzy to the lyrical flow of a summertime film shoot on a farm in Portugal. The directors, Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes, rely on some tricky devices to tell the story of this film shoot—but those tricks, far from undercutting the emotional drama, intensify it. The result is the most accomplished and absorbing film about time spent in lockdown that I’ve seen.

The first trick is built into the title: “Tsugua” is “August” spelled backward (the same concept is used in the original Portuguese title), and, as it suggests, the movie runs in reverse, too. Its story is divided into twenty-two days of action (from August 17 to September 10, 2020), and its calendar runs backward, in a film-long countdown—the movie starts with Day Twenty-two and ends with Day One.

Even discussing the calendar-reversed action is odd for those who (like me) are spoiler-averse, because it changes the very concept of spoilers, and of suspense, when the ending of the story is placed at the beginning of the film. Day Twenty-two is a nighttime dance party, set to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “The Night,” for three young people, a woman and two men—an apparent romantic triangle that breaks off into a pair. The woman dances intently with the shorter, and curly-haired, of the two men; the other walks outside into the night while the seeming new couple kiss in the shadowy-dark room. But there’s something odd about the lovers’ tender embrace. It takes place amid the luscious, lurid glows of lilac, blue, and green from somewhere just outside the window—call it movie lighting. The main drama of “The Tsugua Diaries” is the forming and shifting relationships among these three young adults in the course of the production. Yet it’s hard—indeed, impossible, by design—to know where the movie ends and life begins.

That’s the second, even more audacious trick on which “The Tsugua Diaries” runs. The story is a reflexive one, and leaves no hint of dividing lines among the movie’s three levels of action: the relationships between a cast and crew at a farm in Portugal in a COVID-lockdown bubble, the film-within-a-film that is made in the bubble, and the filming of the film production itself. The real-life Fazendeiro and Gomes play directors bearing their own names, as does their co-scenarist, Mariana Ricardo, who’s there in the bubble with them. The actors, Crista Alfaiate, João Nunes Monteiro (the shorter guy), and Carloto Cotta (the taller one), play actors with their own names and also, in the film-within-a-film, play characters with the same names. The rest of the crew members do the same, and they’re seen at work, filming and recording with cameras and mikes even as they’re being filmed and recorded by the cameras and mikes of others.

The premise of “The Tsugua Diaries” is that, in lockdown, the cast and crew gather on a farm to make a film on an unspecified premise. It takes a while to get back to the start of the production; ingeniously, the concepts that get floated by Fazendeiro and Gomes find their way into all of the movie’s dramatic levels—and they all get disturbed and disrupted by the very nature of life in isolation. A breach in hygienic protocol, when one actor briefly leaves the farm and goes to a nearby beach for a few hours of fun, leads to a grandly dramatic sequence—a group meeting in which the real-life relationships of cast members spill over into the drama that they’re filming, as the prospect of a fictional love scene is shattered by the real-life possibility of deadly illness.

The audacity of the filmmakers’ reverse chronology is amplified by their dramatic methods: we see Fazendeiro, Gomes, and Ricardo start out with no set script. We see them bring the cast and crew together with only the general intention to make a film that’s centered on Crista, João, and Carloto. The action that they then conceive for the trio is determined by who and what are on hand at the farm—and revolves around practical activities and physical labor. They find a tractor, and there’s a scene (luminous, joyful) involving a jaunt around the property; one of the farm’s quintet of dogs gets lost and the group goes searching for it; there’s a swimming pool that’s filthy with brackish water and the cast joins the crew in cleaning it; the actors order a delivery of butterflies and build a hut-size cage for them. Fazendeiro is pregnant (she and Gomes are life partners in the film, as they are in real life), and, when she heads out for an ultrasound, the actors are left to their own devices to write the day’s scene—in which they decide to avoid singing a familiar song because of their awareness of the copyright implications.

What’s more, these very methods are built into the fabric of the film—one of the longest and most trenchant scenes is a living-room conference in which the very methods of composition, the crafting of character and drama on the basis of physical tasks, are debated, criticized, defended. That scene—in which the actors express frustration at having to perform with little regard to character psychology—cleverly anticipates and overcomes viewers’ own thwarted expectations by way of the psychological dimensions of the discussion itself. (The point is reinforced, on another day, in a conflict sparked by a pair of socks that plays an outsized part in an actor’s preparations.) As strange as the filmmakers’ improvisational methods based in hands-on practicalities may seem, the drama that erupts from the management of minor chores and daily trivialities is fierce—nowhere more so than when it’s a matter of what’s for breakfast.

In “The Tsugua Diaries,” everything is drama, and not just because of lockdown: the film is centered on the sheer fact of the cinema itself, on the intrinsic existential pressure placed on ordinary actions by the act of filming them. The movie’s taut yet graceful manner catches a sense of the wonder and terror of fraught banalities; the action is filmed with a calm yet concentrated style combining long takes that glide over the action in tilts and pivots like the strokes of a paintbrush, tensely static shots, and serene ambles that reflect the simple and hearty joy of gathering and working together in defiance of dire circumstances.

“The Tsugua Diaries” is Fazendeiro’s first feature as a director; Gomes is a veteran, who, in his earlier films—including “Our Beloved Month of August,” “Tabu,” and the vast political trilogy “Arabian Nights”—has combined documentary and fiction, ordinary practicalities and brazen theatricality. Here, in “The Tsugua Diaries,” he and Fazendeiro push these contrasting notions to ingenious new extremes of interconnection. With its emphasis on the personal and aesthetic stakes of filming anything at all, and the heightening of that built-in drama by the fears and pressures of the pandemic, “The Tsugua Diaries” inaugurates a new genre: call it bubblecore.

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