I’m writing this review from my summer vacation. Loath as I am to invoke the first person, this admission is relevant for two reasons. Like Eva (Itsaso Arana), the main character of Jonás Trueba’s patient, zephyr-like “The August Virgin,” I’ve chosen to stay home during this stifling late-summer heatwave, a decision that can breed ennui the way stagnant water spawns mosquitoes. More importantly, this is the first time in more than two decades that I’ve taken a week off in August, which just goes to show how different the American idea of summer is from that practiced abroad.
All over Europe — but especially in densely populated places like Paris, London and Madrid — bustling cities practically shut down at the beginning of August as people schedule their vacations at the same time. Like migratory birds, entire populations check out of work and skip town for the month, heading for the sea or the tropics or wherever they feel more relaxed, while tourists flood in to take their place. There are few things more depressing than being left behind (or trapped indoors) during this exodus, when temperatures spike to the brink of what people can bear.
That’s important context to realize when watching “The August Virgin,” in which Arana (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Trueba) plays a woman — soft-spoken yet proactively curious about the world around her — who opts not to leave Madrid at the moment when most of her friends do. Hers is no ordinary staycation: Eva rents an apartment in a lively part of town — the streets teem with festivities for various saints, including the eponymous feast of the Holy Virgin — and spends her time off floating around the city, visiting museums, watching movies, but mostly observing, as the movie invites audiences to read her thoughts, or supply their own instead.
Trueba’s model, which he makes no attempt to disguise, must have been Eric Rohmer’s “Le rayon vert” (or “Summer,” as it was known in the U.S.), in which a young Parisian woman is dumped by her boyfriend immediately before the vacation they were supposed to take. The rest of the film drifts along with her as she improvises distractions to fill the space left by the relationship, while title cards tick by the days. “The August Virgin” does the same thing, to the point that these temporal dividers start to feel distracting, brusquely punctuating what must otherwise seem like a blur to Eva, as suggested by DP Santiago Racaj’s bright, low-contrast lensing and costumes, lighting and compositions that give everything a soft, pastel look.
Humane and openhearted as they are, films such as this can be tough to watch at home, as the absence of plot or dramatic conflict potentially stands in the way of submitting to its wavelength. “The August Virgin” runs well over two hours, when 80 minutes probably would have done just fine, but the indolent pace is Trueba’s choice, and the challenge is ours to embrace the film’s laid-back vibe, to tune ourselves to the subtleties of what must be on Eva’s mind. She doesn’t talk much, preferring to listen, and yet, there are scenes when she becomes quite animated, initiating contact with others, including an edgy performance artist (Isabelle Stoffel), an amateur Reiki practitioner (María Herrador) and a brooding stranger (Vito Sanz) she spots leaning over the edge of an abandoned bridge.
If it feels as though Eva is looking for a fresh perspective on her life, that’s fair. She is. Per the opening crawl, we’re invited to watch as this woman, on the cusp of turning 33, “tries out a new way of being in the world.” We know little about her past, so it’s anybody’s guess what her previous way might have been, other than that she was an actor, now looking for a change. Further information will come to light, including a revelation about 10 minutes from the end that obliges us to reconsider all that has come before — not so much a twist as a window into another dimension of understanding.
Still, the gift of this portrait can be found in its gentle ambiguity. By not telling us too much about Eva, Trueba encourages us to peer into ourselves as we seek to identify with the character. What we find will vary from one viewer to the next, and also depends on how engaged each of us is with this seemingly casual but quite meticulous collection of vignettes. So many movies seek to distract, whereas this one creates a space — like Eva, left behind in a near-empty city — to reflect and reevaluate.