6.5 The Face You Deserve (2004)
7.0 Our Beloved Month of August (2008)
7.3 Tabu (2012)
7.7 Arabian Nights (2015)
6.8 The Tsugua Diaries (2021)
Miguel Gomes (Portugal, 1972)
A Cara que Mereces/ The Face You Deserve (2004)
Aquele Querido Mes de Agosto/ Our Beloved Month of August (2008), divided in two parts, a documentary-fiction hybrid that begins like a travelogue
The black-and-white Tabu (2012) is also divided in two parts, set in two different eras. The second part, set in the old colonial era, tries to imitate the style of silent-era movies. From the beginning the leitmotif of the film is the sadness (saudade) that pervades everything, partly due to historical dramas (the European colonization of Africa) and partly due to the decline of religion (the daughter who doesn't care about her mother). The first part is misleading because its protagonist turns out to be just a vehicle to show the loneliness of the real protagonist, and it turns out to be merely a prologue to a love affair that happened many years earlier, told by the male lover when the female lover (the real protagonist) has just died. Since both are senile and delirious, it could also be that the rest of the film, the love affair, happens only in the imagination of the male lover. The heartbreaking ending, that links the flashback to the first part and changes the way we perceive the first part, comes as a surprise. Mostly the African natives watch expressionless like zombies the odd lives of the white colonialists. The ultimate message of the story remains cryptic, just like the allegorical crocodile that witnesses the tragic love affair.
It was a film watched by a middle-aged woman, Pilar. She waits in vain at the airport for a girl who is supposed to come and stay with her: a friend of this girl tells her that the girl is not coming. Pilar returns home to find her African neighbor Santa with the news that Santa's elderly employer Aurora has lost all her money at the casino. The two women drive to the casino and pick up the senile Aurora, who has done this before and this time explains that it was different because she had a convoluted dream. Pilar lives alone in her humble apartment and Aurora lives with her housemaid Santa in the apartment next door.
Pilar is a devout Catholic who also gives her time to humanitarian causes. One day she joins a group who, wearing headlights, explore a cave that was used as a hideout by the Romans and the Arabs. She studies the history of European genocide in Africa and joins a demonstration against the United Nations. Pilar is worried about Aurora, who has been abandoned by the daughter (who lives in Canada) in the hands of the housemaid. Santa has strict orders not to give Aurora any pills nor any money. Aurora is desperate and tells Pilar that they want to kill her. Aurora is obsessed with crimes that she has committed. Santa is very quiet, cold, inscrutable. Her only passtime is to read Robinson Crusoe. It is Christmas time and Santa is decorating the Christmas tree.
Pilar accidentally meets again the girl of the airport. We hear the girl tell her boyfriend that she is actually the girl whom Pilar was waiting for. Pilar gives her a present that was meant for that girl, perhaps guessing that this is actually the very girl who was supposed to stay with her. Pilar is on her way to the movie theater, where she watches a film while her older platonic boyfriend who falls asleep. This man has given her a terrible painting that she hangs in the living room. He gives her another one.
Aurora falls ill and gets delirious about a crocodile that doesn't exist. At the hospital Santa reads the palm of her hand. Later Santa tells Pilar that Aurora is going to die. Aurora's last wish is to see a man named Gianluca. Pilar tracks him down in a mental institution. She drives him to the hospital where Aurora is dying but Santa calls her with the news that it is too late. A very small group of people attend the funeral, and apparently not even the daughter is there. On the way back, Gianluca begins telling Pilar the story of Aurora.
Aurora's father was a businessman who moved to Africa but he lost everything gambling. She became a world famous hunter and even worked on a Hollywood movie. She married and moved at the base of Tabu Mountain. (We only hear Gianluca's narration, the images are silent except for an exotic and retro musical soundtrack). Meanwhile, Gianluca was a young reckless man who followed his friend Mario, grandson of a missionary, back to Africa. Mario, who had originally wanted to become a priest, was a romantic singer. Gianluca found employment in a mining company. Mario's life was saved by Aurora's husband on Tabu Mt, so the two men became close friends. Gianluca's narration stops when we see the first encounter between Aurora and him in Africa and for a few minutes we just see images and hear jungle sounds but we can't hear what the characters are saying, presumably something about a little crocodile that her husband gifts to Aurora. This becomes her pet. The couple's old servant foretells that she will get pregnant and will die alone. Aurora fires him, tired of his pagan prophecies, but she then discovers that she is indeed pregnant. Aurora's crocodile disappears and she finds it at Gianluca's place, where they suddenly become lovers. During a hunting party she misses a shot for the first time in her life. They continue their secret affair until civil war erupts in the colony. We never hear their dialogues but we hear Mario singing with his band: he captured a rare animal, sold it to a sheik and started spending the money before he received it. Mario's band plays at the villa of a rich unhappy man who plays Russian roulette with a gun until he eventually kills himself. Gianluca goes away and tries to end the relationship. The two lovers exchange a few love letters, then he stops writing. But when he returns, they resume their love affair. Mario finally finds out when he discovers Gianluca's jacket in Aurora's house. Gianluca confesses. Mario tells Gianluca that he has to stop that madness. Gianluca and a very pregnant Aurora flee on a motorcycle towards the board. Mario chases them. Mario and Gianluca get into a fight, rolling on the floor. Aurora picks up a gun and kills Mario. She then gives birth to her daughter in a frontier village. Gianluca realizes the tragedy that he has caused, betraying a friend and causing the death of another one. He is ready to surrender to the authorities and take responsibility, but Aurora's husband simply takes his wife back (and Mario's dead body) and ignores Gianluca. Surprisingly, the pro-independence rebels claim the murder of Mario as theirs. That declaration starts the civil war between Portugal and the rebels, but clears Gianluca of the crime. He leaves Africa for India, and many years later he hears that Aurora's husband has died and she has returned to Portugal with her daughter. He moves back too and tries to get in touch with her but she doesn't want to meet him. So we learn at the very end that the two lovers never met again, and that only on her very last day Aurora had decided to see the great love of her life one last time.
The structure of the six-hour, three-part Arabian Nights (2015) is loosely based on the structure of "One Thousand and One Nights", in which the beautiful Scheherazade has to tell even more interesting stories to her ferocious husband and national tyrant in order to postpone her death sentence. The film is therefore a collection of stories, but each episode is a narrative mess. The film, clearly targeting the economic reforms imposed on Portugal by the international financial powers, weaves together real-life stories and metaphorical tales of the working class. Its final message is the moral absurdity of the globalized economy, but it is also a meditation about the end of the age of national identity and about the decline of the old European powers (Portugal used to be the leader in shipbuilding technology, now it is a backward agricultural country). These episodes mix Bunuel's sardonic surrealism, Soviet social realism, Brecht's allegorical theater, and Jean-Luc Godard's satirical agit-prop cinema. Each episode is a narrative labyrinth with layers of allegorical references and postmodernist tricks, not to mention multiple languages (Portuguese, English, French and even cockerel language). Everybody tells stories, and sometimes stories of stories. There is even a machine that tells stories based on a man's health conditions. Towards the end we detect a little bit of fatigue in the director's storytelling as he begins to resort too much to pations and voiceovers.
Scheherazade continues with a new story. In a rural village an old lady on a cell phone tells a friend that the neighbor has sued them because their cockerel crows in the middle of the night and wants the animal put to death. The story takes place while loudspeakers blast the political message of an aspiring mayor, who wants to return the town to the splendor it enjoyed centuries earlier. The cockerel becomes a symbol of resistance and rebellion. Politicians visit the old lady and try to politicize the case. The villagers discuss arsons started by teenagers. Scheherazade changes story, saying that one thousand years earlier a young man in China was banned from his town because he loved the wrong girl. But this detour only lasts a few seconds. On the day of the elections the women decide independently to vote for all the candites. The men, instead, vote for the cockerel. At night fireworks announce that the socialist candidate has won. A judge, accompanied by a scribe who plays the accordion, visits the house of the cockerel. Men and women who were discussing the elections stop to listen to the trial. The judge claims to be able to understand the language of cockerels and asks the cockerel to justify its late-night crowing. The cockerel tells the judge (in its crowing language, translated by the subtitles for us) that it feels it is its duty to warn the villagers of impending disasters. The action shifts to three teenagers, two girls and a boy, who are having some sort of love triangle via smartphone chats (the three little actors introduce themselves with their real names before enacting the scene). One of the girls, out of jealousy, sets a fire every night in the countryside. This story is apparently told by the cockerel to the judge: the cockerel only regrets that he didn't start raising the alarm earlier, so that many hectares of land would not have burned. The judge acquists the cockerel and then walks into a restaurant to have a big lunch.
The third story begins like a horror movie, in a wet and dark cave. A union member is examined by a female doctor. He asks her if she will join "The Swim of the Magnificents". She connects his chest with a machine that tells a story based on his heart pulse. A man and a group of children on their knees on a sand dune pray St Peter that it won't rain on the first day of the year. The story is now told as the diary of the sick man, Luis, addressed to his doctor. "The Swim of the Magnificents" is a swimming context that this man, a swimming teacher, organizes every year for people who have been left unemployed by the austerity. The film now turns into a documentary of real-life stories told by people who lost their jobs, but interrupted by the sick and sad Luis' obsessive plans for the swimming context. We see him reading a speech to prospective sponsors, while flanked by his partners in the organization: a young punkette with mohawk hair, Maria, and an older man who wears a Mexican sombrero. The young lady tries to explain to Luis that the sponsors have no money because of the economic crisis. In between the stories of the unemployed and the Luis' planning with Maria, every now and then we return to the diary that the sick Luis is keeping for his doctor. He documents one of his weird dreams: a ban on swimming because a whale has died on the beach, and, when he tries to talk to the whale, the whale explodes, and next to her lies a mermaid with the face of the doctor. Maria takes Luis to the New Year's Eve party. It starts raining. Finally it is the day of the swim. Hundreds of people in swimming costumes assemble on the beach, led by Luis, Maria and the older man, who now wears the costume of a cockerel. The audio of the film disappears and we just see the crowd of half-naked people running into the ocean and then running back.
A drone scours the barren countryside. An old man with a rifle is hunting. The voiceover tells us that Simao is an evil loner, just like his father and grandfather. He is known to have a list of people to kill. He is wanted by the police and doesn't seem to care if they kill him. He only cares for his daughter. Girls follow him, strip naked and perform a strange sadomaso ritual on him. Two police officers on horse are looking for him, following the drone, and now we understand the drone belongs to the police. Simao stumbles into a horse dragging a dead man Simao recognizes the dead man as some scoundrel who deserved to die, and takes his money. Simao visits his family, plays with his daughter's children, then let the police arrest him. While he is taken to prison, people line the road giving him a hero's welcome for the way he fooled the authorities.
A ytoung woman walks around the house naked with blood dripping down her legs. She calls her mother to tell her that she lost her virginity with the man that mother recommended, Diogo. People assemble in an amphitheater while the voiceover recites a recipe for a cake. The camera moves and we realize that we are listening to the mother talking to the daughter on her mobile phone. She hangs up and walks towards a table. She is dressed like a judge and begins to address the audience about a trial about a mother and a son who sold furniture belonging to the landlord. Their excuse is that the son has incurred in debts for sex purposes and that the landlord behaved like a beast to them. The son needs sex because his wife left him, tired of being raped twice a day. The judge sentences the son, who sounds completely stupid, to be emasculated. But his wife stands up among the audience and tells the judge that she wants to forgive him and offers him access to her vagina again. She also adds that the landlord acts like a madman. The landlord now feels that he has to defend himself, and accuses accuses the genie, who has come from posterity. The genie in turn involves a rich banker. The banker's lawyer invokes the story of a child who died because an ambulance was late. A cow appears (clearly a man wearing a costume made of scraps of paper). The cow testifies that she and 12 other cows were kidnapped by evil men who loaded them onto a truck. An olive tree helped her escape. Now we see a real cow in front of an olive tree. The ambulance accidentally ran over the cow, and that's how it got delayed and the child died. Five costumed and masked people stand up in the first row of the amphitheater and confess to be the thieves who indirectly caused the whole mishap. The judge reads a list of unsolved crimes and demands that they identify theirs: they claim them all, and in fact they confess even more crimes shouting in their shrill voices. A deafmute stands up and introduces herself as the intermediary who arranged the theft on behalf of a businessman who also forced her to perform disgusting perverted acts. The businessman's lawyer stands up and accuses the pension system. An old government employee stands up to defend the pension system, but the judge recognizes him as aimpostor who pretended to be a homeless man on a tv show. A viking hat confesses having ordered the theft of cows under threat to be subjected to a lie detector, the detector being a human being, no less honest than the viking. It turns out that villagers poisoned some cows and a Cinese customer is responsible for the theft, but he has already been extradited to Cina for other crimes. 12 Chinese girls stand up and tell the judge that this Chinese is a bandit who had 13 Chinese lovers. He organized a context that consisted in several tests (all sorts of sex, massage, haircut, cooking, etc) to pick one wife, and since there were 13 lovers he ordered 13 cows. The deafmute adds another crime: someone stole her wallet. A father forces his son to stand up and confess. The judge, exhausted by this endless list of ridiculous crimes breaks down in tears.
A cute dog mysteriously appears in the tenement of a lower middle-class neighborhood. A woman gives it to her friend Luisa, who lives with her husband Humberto and is always sad. The dog does make her happier. One day she meets a nice young couple who like the dog and invites them to dinner. The young lady tells Luisa that she used to be a dealer of drugs and he used to be a user of drugs. That's how they met and fell in love. Luisa and Humberto tell the stories of the people who live in the building, in particular all the cases of evictions that have been multiplying, but also the female Brazilian nudists who suntan on the roof of the building. One day Luisa decides to give the dog to the young couple, after we learned that Humberto is terminally ill. Now we understand that perhaps the dinner was a way to find new owners for the dog. The old couple commits suicide. The young couple is penniless though and has to find a new owner for the dog. The dog ends up with a black family. The dog is a "love machine': it loves its owners unconditionally, as if there had never been another one before. This episode ends with a cryptic scene in which the dog plays with a ghost of itself.
The third part opens with Indian girl dancing by the sea. A middle-aged man interrupts her but then apologizes: he mistook her for someone else. It has been 515 days since Scheherazade married the bloodthirsty king and this man is her father, the grand vizier, who is haunted by the ghost of his wife. He knows that Scheherazade is running out of stories and soon will be killed and is ready to kill the king. Meanwhile, Scheherazade is writing to him begging him to leave the kingdom with her sister; and we hear her voice while the camera is floating underwater around corals. Children ask their father, a sexy paddleman who has dozens of children, and Scheherazade, who has run away, what happens on the other side of the world, and the camera shows the skyline of a modern city reflected upside down in the sea. The man and the woman walk to the camp of nomadic bandits, who are enjoying... modern Brazilian music (we see black and white footage of modern concerts projected over the scene of ancient Mesopotamia). This is supposed to be set in ancient Mesopotamia but Scheherazade is drinking from an aluminum can. The screen splits and we witness a brutal fight among the bandits. Then Scheherazade starts singing a Brazilian song while the paddleman plays the bongos and a bandit plays the guitar. (Obviously the director just decided to pay tribute to his favorite Brazilian music). Then Scheherazade meets Elvis the thief, breakdancer and womanizer, and finally the genie of the wind. The story is now told mostly via captions, and is one is even carried in the sky by a plane as a banner, but it is supposed to be set in Baghdad while all the action that we see is set by he coast. The action mixes modern and ancient, switching from modern bathers to fishermen. Scheherazade meets her father on the ferris wheel at the beach. They are dressed in ancient costumes and discuss her fate at the court of Baghdad, but below them we clearly see modern Portugal. Then the servants carry her in the streets of Portugal on a royal stretcher.
While the captions are still telling the story of Scheherazade, mixed with dictionary entries about birds, a new episode begins, set in contemporary Portugal. Ze Luis is a bird-trapper, specialized in teaching his birds to sing, who also spends nights in clubs where bands play heavy metal. The captions (annoyingly) continue providing details about birds, about the shanty town where Ze Luis lives, and about Scheherazade, who is supposedly telling the tale, her 516th. Ze Luis sets the traps with a friend, who uses the computer to simulate the songs that they teach the birds. The endless, exhausting, captions, each one telling the story of one of the bird trappers/trainers, begin to ruin the movie).
The final episode is told in Chinese by a young Chinese tourist who witnessed a political demonstration in the streets of Portugal. She then started a relationship with a married union leader, Cata, while living in a hostel. She got pregnant, she was fired from her job, she was accused of theft, and she worked for a countess who wanted to practice her Cantonese until she died in a fire. Finally the Chinese girl was sent back to China. Her story is again told by captions: even if she speaks it, you have to read the captions (unless you understand Chinese).
The film returns to the bird trainers, who are driving to a yearly contest. The camera follows the contest in documentarial detail, leaving the sounds of the birds in the foreground and the sound of a plane in the background. The film ends with a long sequence of the bird trapper walking back home.
Diarios de Otsoga/ The Tsugua Diaries (2021) was co-directed with Maureen Fazendeiro.