Esteemed auteur Miguel Gomes (Tabu) delivers the most exhilaratingly ambitious cinema of the year with Arabian Nights, a marathon six-hour triptych which portrays straitened life in contemporary Portugal through a fanciful lens. Just as his 2008 feature Our Beloved Month of August delightfully blurred the line between documentary and drama, this experimental year-long project blends exhaustively-researched fact with fiction to create a more poetic truth, borrowing the structure and narrator of its literary namesake to tell a dozen or so stories inspired by real occurrences. Often dazzling, occasionally frustrating and always adventurous, this unwieldy enterprise feels akin to a sprawling postmodern novel — a Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest — and as such your mileage may vary, but the overall experience is one not to be missed for intrepid cinephiles.
Opening with a lengthy documentary-style segment and directorial statement of intent, Volume 1: The Restless One takes its time to get going. We learn of the lay-off of 600 shipyard workers from the northern port of Viana do Castelo as well as the (surely metaphorical) plight of a beekeeper battling an invasive Asian wasp species with no aid from the municipal services. Gomes appears on camera to remark that perhaps a connection exists between these two stories, before jesting that “I’m stupid and abstraction gives me vertigo.” Self-consciously acknowledging the daunting task ahead, not to mention the folly of tackling both socio-political issues and escapism fantasy — which “should be two different films” and could be the “dumbest idea ever” — the filmmaker attempts a mock escape with his crew in pursuit, hinting at the playful tone of what’s to come. After 30-patience-testing-minutes the Arabian Nights title card finally arrives, reminding us that this is not a direct adaptation of the eponymous collection of folk tales but rather a freewheeling tour through post-recession Portugal, as our present-day Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) begins narrating the first story proper: “The Men With Hard-Ons”. Every bit as hilariously absurd as its title suggests and replete with fantastical flourishes and amusing anachronisms, this irreverent tale depicts the quarrelling bankers and politicians charged with administering Portugal’s crippling austerity measures as impotent imbeciles. Another, “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire”, concerns a cock put on trial for crowing too early and includes an enfolding teenage love triangle story told via text messages on screen. The final entry, “The Swim of the Magnificents”, is the most straight-forward and affecting of the film, its surreal bookends notwithstanding. It ostensibly follows a trade unionist (Adriano Luz) as he struggles to organise the traditional New Year’s Day public swim, but the real stars are the recently unemployed citizens (or “Magnificents”) who relate their stories of economic hardship and depression in heart-wrenching detail.
Aside from a repetition of the title card declaration described above, Volume 2: The Desolate One spends no time refreshing viewers’ memories or catering to newcomers. It begins with “Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ‘Without Bowels'”, a criminal-on-the-run narrative that marks a dramatic and refreshing change of pace from the narration-heavy first volume. While I appreciated this more cinematic and mysterious entry, it can feel a little indulgent and off-topic — although I concede that Gomes is certainly saying something here about the public’s support of this nasty man over the parodic law enforcement. The next major story, “The Tears of the Judge”, is not just the centrepiece of this film but the entire trilogy: revolving around a Buñuelian trial, a stern judge (Luísa Cruz) tries her best to keep track of the layers upon layers of complicated grievances, backstories and excuses from the increasingly strange complainants (a genie! the spirit of a dead cow! 13 Chinese mail-order brides!). Moving on from the easy political targets of “The Men With Hard-Ons”, Gomes now appears to find everyone complicit in Portugal’s messy state of affairs. As the judge is gradually worn down, she exclaims, “This is making my head spin and I want to throw up! This grotesque chain of stupidity, evil, desperation is beginning to test my competence and above all my patience.” Ludicrous and surprisingly poignant, this allegory for the complexity of accountability and impossibility to place true guilt when none are innocent is the most audacious political filmmaking I have seen in a long time. The third and final entry here is “The Owners of Dixie”, a bifurcated story that follows a loving shaggy dog (Cannes’ Palm Dog Winner) as he brings temporary joy to the lives of some downtrodden tower block tenants. By far the strongest and most consistent film of the trilogy, Volume 2 is one of my cinematic highlights of the year, although I cannot recommend seeing it in isolation.
While episodic by nature and inevitably somewhat uneven, these stories have a powerful cumulative effect, deepening our understanding of and empathy for Portugal and its struggling citizens. Unfortunately this ceases to be the case for much of Volume 3: The Enchanted One, the most challenging and divisive film of the trilogy. Set on the “Archipelago of Baghdad”, the opening story belongs to Scheherazade and is therefore the most lush, romantic and melancholy of the series — in fact, this swoony segment is quite possibly the film that fans of 2012’s Tabu were anticipating all along. After confessing to her father, the Grand Vizier (Americo Silva), that she is struggling to keep up the storytelling momentum, Scheherazade rambles about her beautiful and wildly anachronistic Mediterranean surroundings, encountering such characters as the prodigiously procreative Paddleman (Carloto Cotta) and a young thief/dancer named Elvis. Her voiceover narration has been replaced by inter-titles, and ’60s pop music dominates first the soundtrack and then the screen as black-and-white concert footage interrupts scenes of blissful nomads, fading in and out like some kind of hallucination. This charming segment is another bracing experiment from Gomes and co., including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom whose evocative work is at its most gorgeous here. It also ends up being somewhat of a generous digression, as disconnected from Portuguese concerns as it is. The longest and most trying segment of the trilogy is “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches”, an almost entirely documentary-style piece on bird trappers — led by senior expert Chico Chapas (Francisco Gaspar, previously seen as Simão) — who enter chaffinch singing competitions. Occasionally the characters’ upbringing in shanty towns or impoverished housing projects is touched upon, providing some interesting historical details, but as the frustratingly opaque and often tedious story drags on it can feel like merely sitting around aimlessly listening to birds chirp. We are briefly treated to the story of a Chinese immigrant in “Hot Forest”, which brings a fascinating outsider perspective to footage of a real-life security forces protest, before being reluctantly reimmersed in the punishing 80-minute saga of the chaffinches. Offering no closure or even coherence, it is difficult not to feel disappointed by this anticlimactic end to an otherwise remarkable project.
Despite the misgivings I had with some narrative indulgences and the overlong runtime, these films are so full of life and ideas that I found myself willing to forgive many of their missteps. The playfulness and endless imagination of the storytelling extends to the film’s style — which oscillates between drama and documentary, incorporates 16mm and 35mm film, features actors reappearing in multiple roles, plays with information on screen and multiple narrators (in several languages) — and the way Gomes keeps us guessing throughout is absolutely thrilling. In another director’s hands this project may have taken on an understandably caustic or depressing mood, but these films are so big-hearted and humanist that they can’t help but feel like a celebration of Portugal’s spirit. Although not the epic masterpiece I had wished for, Arabian Nights remains an utterly unique and fascinating experience, further establishing Gomes as one of the most inventive filmmakers of his generation.
OVERALL RATING: B+
Arabian Nights is currently screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival.