Note: This review encompasses all three Volumes of the Arabian Nights trilogy: The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One
Have you ever heard the old adage that all stories have already been told? Some people believe that we have been chronicling the same small number of scenarios over and over again for the last 500 years with minor adjustments to keep them somewhat revitalised and immediate, letting fables evolve over time to fit in with the rapidly changing landscape of modern life. Miguel Gomes and his new gargantuan triptych of films, Arabian Nights, goes a long way to dispelling this myth, not only serving up fresh, idiosyncratic tales of human drama but framing them in such a way that they make an otherwise comfortable contemporary crowd look rather dull in comparison. The reason Arabian Nights has gotten so much attention on the festival circuit is because Gomes takes pains to make sure that he is not only revealing these unique tales to his audience but also doing it in a way that feels fresh and demands attention.
Because ostensibly, these films (more accurately, one long film split into three parts for the sake of common sense) are about the joy and the difficulty we have when we tell stories, the heartbreak and nostalgia that comes with delving into the lives of others and exploring somebody else’s field of vision. Typical of the esoteric Portuguese maestro, Gomes funnels his anthology through the character of Scheherazade, the iconic narrator of the canonical piece of nineteenth century literature One Thousand and One Nights. We are told that Scheherazade has married a bloodthirsty king in mythological Baghdad and, in order to prevent him from killing her and any more of his wives, keeps herself alive by teasing the king with exotic, twisting narratives, never finishing a story before the night is over. One long story split into volumes, splitting off into chapters, tales upon tales inside tales: this is a labyrinth that begs to be explored.
As Gomes explains though, this is no mere adaptation. These are tales that feel both ancient yet simultaneously crisp and modern. The adventures that the beautiful and wily Scheherazade takes us on are all spun from real events in Portugal and pertain to the damning, dysfunctional period of government ordered austerity measures experienced by the Portuguese people between August 2013 and July 2014. All of a sudden, the film takes on a whole new political and allegorical layer, a move that changes the film, or the way we perceive it, entirely; it is also a move that may have some people scratching their heads or feeling slightly hesitant as the Portuguese austerity crisis doesn’t exactly sound like a simple subject to grasp. The first moment of genius in the film, then, comes when Gomes himself has this very same revelation and it these moments of self-reflection and hyper-awareness that give the film its intellectual and emotional foundation.
Early on, after the films head-scratching but alluring documentarian opening, the director appears on the set of the film we are watching, pondering as to whether it is morally just, worthwhile or even possible for him to make a film that blends entertainment with serious political consequence. The director’s drive to fulfil his own needs comes into conflict with the needs of the audience and then with the needs of society and culminates in him abandoning the set, abandoning production and running for his life. Through the absurdist meta-humour that the film often employs, there is a genuine exploration of film as an aesthetic medium, the diplomacy of an artist and the hierarchy of moral importance. This scene in particular sets the tone for the rest of the film in that, despite its tendency to lurch between heartbreaking realism and Buñuelian lunacy, Arabian Nights really does aim its sights high, whether focused on itself or its mortal enemy: the corrupt Portuguese government.
The bizarre and inventive tales come thick and fast, hopping from genre to genre. Each one is based on a true story found in the Portuguese media by Gomes’ team of researchers and then channelled through Scheherazade’s imagination. Portugal is described as a far off land, akin to the location of our most famous fairytales, and the narratives reflect this. To list them all would be a chore for critic and reader alike but this “rosary of tragedies” as one exultant character exclaims, is never predictable. For a film that grounds itself in political allegory, the absurdity and gallows humour comes thick and fast. The most comedic and overtly satirical of the segments appears in the first volume (subtitled as ‘The Restless One’) as a group of Portuguese politicians and bankers find themselves struggling with impotency before being cursed into having raging, constant erections that they are unable to rid themselves of.
“The Tears of the Judge”, appearing in the second volume (‘The Desolate One’), is a showcase of Gomes’ writing prowess and striking visual talent as an outdoor courtroom, bathed in purple moonlight, plays host to string of accusations and defences from a host of increasingly unfathomable characters, the judge losing control of the judicial system when she realises that human nature cannot be pinned down and explained in the realm of the court. We bake in the heat of an anti-western as an elderly man becomes a folk hero whilst evading the law, even after killing his wife; we live through the tragic lives surrounding a dog named Dixie, his owners unable to find happiness in modern day Portugal despite the joy he brings to them. Even Scheherazade herself has a chapter in “ancient” Baghdad, a glorious, warm breath of fresh air that contains Gomes’ signature 50’s soundtrack charged with a latin spirit. No two stories are the same but each contains the vitriol and intensity that Gomes’ holds towards the nation he loves, especially “The Swim of the Magnificents”, which somehow turns the mundane, one-take monologues of destitute countrymen into exciting, devastating sermons being served to the criminals who have laid the country to waste from the inside. This chapter also contains an exploding whale. So it goes.
Gomes’ previous major films, Our Beloved Month of August and the stunning Tabu, have both employed a certain sense of visual and aural ingenuity to distinguish themselves from the norm and there is no sudden creative drought here. Whilst Tabu was restrained in its melancholy tone which drew from silent movies and pre-code travelogues, Arabian Nights feels like this restraint has been snapped and all of the genres, visuals and escapades that Gomes’ wants to explore have suddenly been pushed to the fore. One of the first lines of dialogue heard in the film derives that “I still have a lot to learn in life because the world has no limits”, a mantra that is suitably enforced from that point onwards. Getting used to this style of large amounts of onscreen text, long, slow takes of the beautiful Portuguese landscapes (both industrial and natural) and a mix of formalist and documentary-esque camerawork may take a while for even the most seasoned viewer but it ultimately makes the audience feel as though they are seeing a multi-faceted view of Gomes’ country. Whilst it is inevitable than some stories may not resonate with every viewer as much as others, this matters little in the grand scheme of the film. Arabian Nights aims to, and subsequently succeeds in, opening the world’s eyes to the rebellious spirit of a sunburned and broken Portugal, straining to find its lost romance in an age of unplanned poverty.
Arabian Nights will be screening over two days at Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham with Volume 1 on Friday 22nd April and Volumes 2 and 3 on Saturday 23rd April. For more information on all the films screening at the festival, click here – http://flatpackfestival.org.uk/events/list/