This is not a literal adaptation of The Arabian Nights, it merely adopts its structure, its disposition, and—eventually—its sublime perspicacity. It comes across as a cross-processing of Buñuel‘s Phantom of Liberty, Pasolini‘s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the films of inspirational Portuguese filmmakers, Antonio Reis and Margarida Cordeiro. But even that doesn’t quite cover it.
As with his previous features, Our Beloved Month of August, Tabu and the short work, Redemption, Arabian Nights takes no heed of the supposed partition wall which divides the worlds of documentary and fiction, and throughout its three freewheeling chapters (The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One), Gomes is clearly looking to coagulate these forms in exciting and unconventional ways.
The Directors’ Fortnight has screened each of the three films separately, one every other day. Some publications have sent different reviewers to one or more of the three volumes; others, like Jenkins, have caught all three and posted their initial thoughts in single or separate entries.
So I’m dividing this roundup into three sections, and we’ll just see where the updates land as the entry evolves.
Volume 1, The Restless One
“Some directors struggle to close off their film from the outside, to master and perfect it,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman:
Miguel Gomes does not, and let’s the world into his movie, and his moviemaking into the world. Volume 1: The Restless One is not perfect and its director knows it…. [P]erhaps it is made of the stories Gomes himself tells his disgruntled crew, upset over his flight from the production over, as he tells us in voiceover, conflicts of privilege. Indeed, The Restless One is a very privileged film, shot on 16mm and 35mm film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s cinematographer [Sayombhu Mukdeeprom], and with the luxury of being able to combine documentary and fiction together into that most trendy of contemporary festival genres, the ‘hybrid film.’ … Gomes is too embedded in the idiom of a certain kind of hipster film to really detach from an often too casual and not firm enough development of his ideas and stories. A friend made a good point: the beautiful press kit for the film, which includes extracts of the director’s diary and a stylized introduction to how the film was shot—a workflow of gathering topical stories around Portugal, fictionalizing them, then traveling and filming with participants and in the location—may in fact be more simple and eloquent than this first volume of Arabian Nights.
You’ll want to explore the site as well.
“Gomes begins by discussing the shipyards in the Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “Noting that, at the moment, he feels he couldn’t tell any story without his country’s economic situation on his mind, he explains that he decided to find a way to combine fact and fiction. Shifting to a more fanciful gear, Volume 1 recounts a tale [The Men with a Hard-On] of impotent bankers who receive help with their sexual prowess from a wizard. When that strategy backfires, they subject the Portuguese populace to austerity measures in order to obtain the money to reverse the spell. It’s a representative episode.”
And it “sets the tone for the overall playfulness of the Arabian Nights trilogy,” writes Irina Trocan at Movie Mezzanine. “Being the most dramatically dense film of the three, Volume 1 unpredictably links consecutive fables. The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire depicts an approaching election that gives a rooster its moment of glory, as well as a love triangle involving a firewoman and an arsonist. Inspired by a similar real event, the whole affair seems all the more ridiculous because the three protagonists are played by children and the exchanges are mostly written in text messages.”
To back up, before Gomes runs off, he introduces Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), “barely glimpsed in Volume 1,” notes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter, “though Alfaiate, like most of the actors, plays several roles, including a punk-rock chick who’s prominently featured later…. The last section, The Swim of the Magnificents, most clearly harks back to Gomes’s use of elements from the documentary genre, as seen in August. It features a trade unionist (Adriano Luz, earlier seen in The Men with a Hard-On) interviewing unemployed citizens ahead of a traditional dip in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day. Their stories about surviving without a salary or any prospects are touching and simultaneously enraging and Gomes brilliantly contrasts these testimonies with the fable-like image of a gigantic beached whale that explodes, which in turn affordis a small mermaid that must’ve been swallowed whole an unexpected rebirth and second chance at life.” “Gomes furthers his Buñuelian bona fides with biting allegories of capitalism run rampant,” writes Variety‘s Jay Weissberg. Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa: “The tone of the film is gentle, but the critique of the political mockery is explicit, and in spite of his partialness for the spectacular, Gomes takes no prisoners. ‘Next year can’t be worse than this one,’ says one character. The story ends there.”
Volume 2, The Desolate One
Daniel Kasman: “I wonder if film is actually the best format for Gomes’s ambitious project, which I could easily see sprawling into television or web episodes, an all consuming process of ingesting a never ending series of idiosyncratic, telling events of Portugal’s contemporary history…. Stories within stories within stories, the film, despite its limitations… not only is freed to rove Portugal for the rich, odd incident, but suggests a project with an unquenchable thirst and an unlimited supply. One can imagine even Miguel Gomes setting the Arabian Nights down and another filmmaker picking it up—something I whole-heartedly encourage.” Volume 2, which Ben Kenigsberg finds “funnier and more accessible” than 1, “limits itself to three stories,” notes Irina Trocan: “Chronicle of the Escape of Simão “Without Bowels” assumes the form of an arthouse western… The Tears of the Judge recounts a trial in a small community, overseen by a very open-minded—if sometimes incredibly blunt—female judge (Luísa Cruz)… The third and lightest episode, The Owners of Dixie, follows a small white dog as it changes owners within a poor neighborhood… Volume 2 is easily the most immediately pleasing part of the trilogy, although it obviously needs the context of the other two films.”
“Volume 2 features less stinging rhetoric than its predecessor, as whimsical satire gradually segues into observational tragicomedy,” writes Variety‘s Guy Lodge. The Tears of the Judge “gives a saucy reproval to archaic gender and racial hierarchies still present in modern European society.” And The Owners of Dixie “will most please admirers of Gomes who cottoned onto his work via the wistful, deadpan romanticism of his 2012 feature Tabu.”
All in all, Gomes “continues to recount various real events that have recently taken place in his country in the form of absurd tales,” writes Bénédicte Prot, “but this time the tone is less corrosive and more entertaining, as if his anger has passed and he is free of it, leaving him to fully appreciate the absurdity of the situation and share his appalled mirth with us.”
Update, 5/23: The Desolate One “is an appropriately striking, dramatic and even mirthful work that, however, would make little sense on its own,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “Part one suggested contemporary Portugal was a restless nation, and part two further explores the notion that the severe austerity measures ‘executed by a government devoid of social justice,’ as per onscreen text, have thrown the country into disarray and despair, though some hope always remains.”
Volume 3, The Enchanted One
“Volume 3: The Enchanted One had me smiling for a good 45 minutes in a row,” writes Daniel Kasman. “After a brief glimpse of Gomes’s modern version of Scheherazade in Volume 1, we finally get to spend some time with her in ‘Baghdad,’ wandering the landscape encountering lovers and bandits, singing and listening to songs, and otherwise collecting a series of microscopic tales shown in small sections and exposited in text placed on screen… The next and final section, and I believe the longest in all of the Arabian Nights, is an almost straight documentary of a widespread but dying community of working class Portuguese who capture and train finches, at once a beautiful ethnography and perhaps a singing, nuanced analogy for today’s troubled nation of Portugal.”
“The Enchanted One does several things to complete Miguel Gomes’s trilogy, but what it doesn’t do is offer closure,” finds Irina Trocan. “On the contrary, Scheherazade’s last tale is so self-contained and so carefully developed that it essentially exits the trilogy’s overarching structure to stand on its own.”
“Interestingly, the flowery title cards continue, popping several times a minute,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “At first, it seems like a joke, until the viewer realizes that they serve a clear purpose. By handing over narration duties to on-screen text, Gomes has freed up space on the soundtrack for the sounds of nature. In essence, Gomes is trying to make the case for the unremarkable, framing whistling birds and weekend obsessions in the terms of the folkloric.”
Update, 5/27: “Though pretty much of a piece with the other two features, there’s no real sense of closure, which might be part of Gomes’s point,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “Of all the stories that Scheherazade recounts in the three films, the one in which she herself is the star is without a doubt the most lushly imagined.”
“Continually surprising, Arabian Nights many thrills include ample pop songs, long takes that dwell on poetic images, as well as new people and that emerge and overtake over the film, steering it into unexpected directions,” writes Adam Cook for Indiewire. “Gomes’s mise en scène happily jumps from tacky and silly to lush and elegant—while Sayombhu manages to take this diverse palette and make it all feel like part of a unified vision.”
“The film is hugely entertaining and quite magical in places; in others, it can be a little grueling,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen. “But then, you could say the same about novels such as Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy—possibly the closest equivalents to the film’s mix of narrative, philosophizing and discursive game-playing.”
“For all the film’s politics, Arabian Nights can also be whimsical, swooningly romantic, inspiring, fascinating, or deeply sad,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist.
Updates, 5/23: “Gomes and his collaborators have invented an entirely new approach for looking at the real world through an optic that distorts it, defamiliarizes it, and restores to it a rich, poetic form of truth,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “Just as the film’s fantasy Arabia takes on the colors of the everyday, the concrete realities of contemporary Portuguese working-class life (whether it’s the struggles of firefighters, the subculture of chaffinch hunting and birdsong competitions, or the neighborhood arguments caused by the disruptive crowing of a pet cockerel), all this becomes as fabulous and entrancing as any tale of princes and genies.”
Updates, 5/24: “Fascinating even in its misfires, this sprawling and fantastical document of the country’s plight in the wake of the global financial crisis confirms Gomes as one of the most exhilaratingly inventive filmmakers working today,” declares Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Gomes’s love for his country is equaled by his love for its people, which is keenly felt in every one of the stories (minus the hard-ons, of course). Despite their fanciful absurdity, the tales are always marked by a palpable empathy that disallows them from slipping into mere farce…. While it could certainly have used trimming in parts, Arabian Nights is definitely worth the six-hour investment. In its boundless experimentation and sheer audacity, it’s the cinematic equivalent of such mammoths of postmodern literature as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. To watch Gomes’ film entails a rediscovery of the potential of the medium of film, renewing one’s enthusiasm for its possibilities.”
And Irina Trocan talks with Gomes here in Keyframe.
Update, 5/28: “Schizophrenic and bloated, it shouldn’t be a surprise that not every moment of this works,” grants Blake Williams at Ioncinema. “But it’s a tribute to Gomes’s democratic and impulsive methodology that the films remains vibrant, alive, and always unpredictable, to say nothing of its incredibly generous spirit. This is cinema that’s trying to change the world, and trying to evolve the ways in which cinema is made and watched. Indulgent as it (necessarily) is, there is not an objectionable bone in its body, and one can only hope that films of its caliber become a regular fixture in the coming decades’ cinema landscape.”
Updates, 6/13: Notebook editor Daniel Kasman talks with Gomes:
“Scheherazade mastered the teasing art of the cliffhanger as a hedge against death, and Gomes’s film is, accordingly, both urgent and playful,” writes Dennis Lim for Artforum. “An immense work of exhilarating freedom, it attempts just about every storytelling device and narrative mode imaginable, veering from political satire to Brechtian theater to tear-jerking melodrama, always conscious that its fantasy dimension is a license for directness, a path to a more meaningful truth.”
“If Tabu was Gomes’s elegant, melancholy reflection on colonialism, then Arabian Nights is its pointed inverse, dismantling contemporary sociopolitical ironies from the inside out,” writes Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot.
In the Guardian, Luke Buckmaster finds the three-parter “littered with moments that are giddy, absurdist and erratically comical—pockets of sugary whimsy to help the medicine go down.”
“There are scenes of blazing brilliance, burning with rage, and others that are affecting tales of a blighted country,” writes Garry Maddox in the Brisbane Times. “But some scenes are just strange, unfocused or drag on too long, which makes Arabian Nights a rewarding but uneven experience over the three installments.”
Update, 7/8: Nicolas Rapold interviews Gomes for Film Comment.
Update, 7/25: “This is a film about the necessity of storytelling,” writes Calum Marsh for the Voice, “but it is also one about the frustrations inherent in the storytelling form—and frustration is what many will feel, even, or perhaps especially, after this much time invested…. Arabian Nights is an attempt to reckon with a crisis that is quite beyond it; any sense of resolution, in the conventional sense, would have been a betrayal of the truth. This is a masterpiece not because it culminates in some redemptive catharsis or clinching argument for social change, but because, by disavowing such futile ends, it meets the mess of life in its own clear and true terms.”