The Tsugua Diaries opens amidst a party on what we are informed is “Day 22.” Crista, Carloto, and João (Crista Alfaiate, Carloto Cotta, and João Nunes Monteiro) vibe easily to Frankie Valli. The night closes out with a hint of a developing love triangle. Then the next scene is “Day 21,” and features the trio lounging around in a van and discussing throwing a party the next day. The romantic plot thread is unwound by this jump backward in time. As the rest of the film counts down through the days, it similarly reshapes your understanding of the situation it depicts, its simple conceit opening up for a continual sense of playfulness.
Shot on deliciously grainy 16mm, The Tsugua Diaries often has a home movie feel. The actors are completely, naturalistically at ease with each other, helping lull the viewer into the pleasant summertime haze they inhabit. But nothing is ever so simple with Miguel Gomes, who co-directs and writes with Maureen Fazendeiro (making her feature debut here). Their work often interrogates the vagaries of storytelling in general and of filmmaking in particular, and as going backward in time contextualizes what’s going on, they unveil more than a simple hangout film.
It isn’t often that I feel compelled to signal a spoiler warning when discussing an arthouse film from Portugal, but there are undeniable pleasures that come from being surprised as The Tsugua Diaries unspools just who Crista, Carloto, and João are and what they’re doing at this picturesque woodsy house. So if you want to preserve those surprises, proceed with caution.
On Day 15, an uncommented-upon woman wanders in the background of several scenes. On Day 13, we are introduced without fanfare to a whole host of people who join the main characters at breakfast. It turns out they are all part of a film production, operating in isolation to comply with COVID-19 protocols. (The movie — as in, both this one and the movie within it — takes place in August 2020, before vaccines were available.) When Carloto breaks the set’s quarantine to go surfing, it triggers a crisis of concern which, one can infer, subsequently suspends the production, leaving the protagonists to the idleness in which we’ve come to know them.
The rest of the film then follows the shoot up to that point, and acts as a sort of meta-commentary on itself. In the same way the lead trio play characters who share their real names, Gomes and Fazendeiro appear as themselves or fictionalized versions thereof alongside their co-writer Mariana Ricardo, serving similar roles on the set. The movie they are shooting bears quite the resemblance to how the actors were earlier and will later interact on their own, and a glimpse of a whiteboard chart suggests it is supposed to have its own nonlinear telling as well. Other real-life details bleed in too like Gomes and Fazendeiro’s romantic partnership, or Fazendeiro going to a doctor for a pregnancy checkup.
So The Tsugua Diaries is a film both about the idyll of relaxation and the challenging labor involved in artistically capturing that feeling, and constructs this idea by holding up for the audience a seemingly uncomplicated scenario of the former before revealing how much of the latter is involved. Despite its easygoing atmosphere, this is a film that rewards your attention and your engagement, continually revealing layers the more you think about it.
The Tsugua Diaries opens in select theaters May 27.