New York 2015 Review: Miguel Gomes' ARABIAN NIGHTS, Cinematic Highlight Of The Year
The last time I talked with Miguel Gomes, the subject of our conversation was not about his latest film, Tabu, but almost exclusively about the impact of the devastating austerity measure by the Portuguese government on the Portuguese film community and its general population in this global recession era. It is no surprise then, that the Portuguese director's next project concerns just that. He makes it clear in the preface of each of the 3 volumes of Arabian Nights:
This film is not an adaptation of the book ARABIAN NIGHTS despite drawing on its structureThe stories, characters and places that Scheherazade will tell us about acquired a fictional form from facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014. During this period the country was held hostage to a program of economic austerity executed by a government apparently devoid of social justice. As a result, almost all Portuguese became more impoverished.
As soon as I'd heard of its release at this year's Cannes, it became my most anticipated movie of the year. And it definitely doesn't disappoint. What's surprising is that the result is a sprawling, ambitious 6+ hour film divided in to 3 volumes, shot on anamorphic widescreen format.
Political films are often boring. Well intentioned films are even more boring. But since it's Miguel Gomes, the director of such genre defining, inventive, playful films as Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu, Arabian Nights is nothing of the variety. Even with limited resources, the film is full of wonder in the best sense of the word. Gomes's aim is to tell as many real stories of people of Portugal under economic siege, which explains the 6 hour running time. But he does so so effortlessly with his fluid, unhurried filmmaking.
The film starts with two differing occurrences in a declining port town: there are massive lay offs in the shipyard and an sprawling invasion of Asian wasps in vineyards and homes. Unable to make the coherent story out of these two seemingly unconnected happenings, a haggard, lost film director (Gomes) is seen cowardly running away from his film. He is not seen again until Volume Three as he makes a brief appearance as one of the Arabian slaves of the queen Scheherazade. Then we are told about Scheherazade's fate - The ruthless and murderous King weds beautiful virgins and kills them off one by one if they can't provide nightly storytelling. Beautiful Scheherazade has to keep telling myriad stories to stay alive, hence, begins the labyrinthine tales within tales of Gomes's own version of Arabian Nights in three volumes- Volume One: The Restless One, Volume Two: The Desolate One and Volume Three: The Enchanted One.
The episodic storytelling ranges from a full on satire - as in 'The Men with Hard-ons' about camel riding politicians and bankers (so-called Troika- IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission) whose wishes come true by an African genie they encounter on a dirt road. Their wish- round-the-clock hard-ons. Pleased with themselves, they decide to throw out the harsh austerity measure but only to find out that eternal hard-ons are not only unpleasant and hurtful but also a major inconvenience. They put the austerity measure back on, with a weighed symbolism leading the next stories - the explosion of a beached dead whale on a New Year's Day in 'Bath of the Magnificents', to a tragicomedy - in a lovely chapter called, 'The Owners of Dixie', going into the history of suburban housing projects and its low-income occupants, to an observational documentary in 'The Inebriated Chorus of Chaffinches' about brusque urban bird-trappers and the finch singing contest.
But above the description doesn't do justice to the immense beauty and lyricism of Arabian Nights. Even if its political subtext is always there, Gomes doesn't abandon the human element and shows the resilience of ordinary people in dire circumstances. Neither does he neglect playing with conventions of cinema as a narrative medium.
Fittingly, he uses both professional actors and non-professionals in different roles in the three volumes throughout, building the sense of intimacy of each 'person' and lived-in atmosphere.
Gomes's cinematic playfulness is evident in every aspect - sometimes Scheherazade's narration and texts on screen are literal translations of what's unfolding before us, sometimes not. Sometimes he leaves the story to unfold itself without interruption. Simple edit tricks like a long cross-fade and some costumes and papier mâché are the extent of the special effects he incorporates. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, a long time Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator, lends his magic here with his languid visual poetry.
Since I saw the three volumes in succession, I can't really say if each volume works as a standalone film. It would be a hard sell for distributors to release it as a 381 minute film though (Kino Lorber is distributing it stateside). The thing is, Gomes's storytelling (via Scheherazade) could go on forever, in order to stay alive (haha). But I can't say enough about what a wondrous, one of a kind cinematic storytelling Arabian Nights is. It is definitely this year's cinematic highlight for me.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com