‘The Tsugua Diaries’ Review: Finding Togetherness in a Pandemic

The Tsugua in “The Tsugua Diaries” is the month of August spelled backward. And for good reason: The co-directors Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes tell the film’s story in reverse chronological order starting on Day 21. But instead of presenting a stream of reverse motion shots — think Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” or Lee Chang Dong’s “Peppermint Candy”— the filmmakers let the days themselves unfold chronologically. Shot on 16-millimeter, the movie plays like a series of stand-alone shorts, all buttressed by splashes of light and sharp editing choices. The result: a work that possesses both the whimsy and fearlessness of a student project and the technical vibrancy of a veteran’s opus.

Set on a farm in an unnamed Portuguese seaside town, the movie plods at first as we watch the trio of friends — Crista (Crista Alfaiate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta) and João (João Nunes Monteiro) build a butterfly house. It’s not until the fourth wall is broken, a third of the way in, does the film find its wings.

But “The Tsugua Diaries” doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it demolishes it. The film expands to become a story that includes the crew, producers, screenwriters, directors and even the cooks.

Shot well into the coronavirus pandemic that has shaken up what is normal, Fazendeiro and Gomes, a couple directing together for the first time, are not interested in pretending nothing has changed, even when it comes to maintaining proverbial movie magic. Rather, the aim here is that the entire filmmaking team functions as one cinematic organism where individual instincts add up to a truly collective work. And remarkably, it succeeds, demonstrating how to transmute the constraints of pandemic-era moviemaking into a film with humor and, during a time marred by isolation, a sense of real togetherness.

The Tsugua Diaries
Not rated. In Portuguese and Romanian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.