Director Miguel Gomes cameos in his own massive three-part film, Arabian Nights, as a director who cannot handle the pressure of making a movie while his country of Portugal is enduring a massive recession. Portuguese ports are closing, social services are being cut, unemployment is rising, and nearly every citizen is the most impoverished that they’ve ever been. And no comfort is in sight. Gomes (who is not playing himself, but a nameless, cowardly director) flees the production of his film and abandons his crew. Knowing sadness, the ancient storyteller Scheherazade is beckoned to listen to the tales of the suffering Portuguese. She steps in for the director, and narrates the abandoned film with the same humor and care which saved her life during the One Thousand and One Nights.
Each one of Gomes’ Arabian Nights films, The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One, features entertaining stories in which Gomes weaves potent satire into magical scenarios. Gomes also bookends these hilarious sections with delicate, slow, and sorrowful stories of silent observations. It is a call and response of the filmmaker who feels a duty to listen to the suffering of his country and the storyteller who hopes to wow them. The resulting trilogy that Gomes creates shares little with the ancient tales that were compiled over centuries as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. Knowing a little about that story collection beforehand, however, will greatly enhance the impact of these films.
In One Thousand and One Nights: The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, Scheherazade was a virgin who was married to a ruthless King. The King had a history of marrying a virgin every night after sending the previous queen off to be beheaded; each virgin only lasted one night with the King. When Scheherazade was sent to the King she saved her life by telling the King compelling stories that would continue through the night, enrapturing him until he fell asleep. Each morning, the King would awake wanting a new tale from her. Through 1,000 nights of stories Scheherazade spared her life, and by the 1,001 night— when she revealed that she had no more stories to tell—her life was spared and she was made Queen, because the King had fallen in love with her storytelling capability.
Gomes’ Arabian Nights is incredibly daring, heartfelt, airy, and angry. Each film contains a rousing centerpiece with a goofy and mystical story, that calls upon Scheherazade’s ability to tell rousing tales of genies, ghosts, bandits, and virginal queens. And each film contains Gomes’ conscience, and his desire to be truthful to the dire straits that the laborers are enduring in Portugal.
A casual viewer might wish that Gomes had only made his Arabian Nights a collection of the most playful stories. But Gomes feels akin to both the vocal and silent Scheherazade, and he needs both sides of this woman to be his muse. The vocal Scheherazade spins entertaining tales to save her life, the silent Scheherazade thinks of her perilous existence, and of her family, particularly her sister, whose place with the King she has taken. In that regard, Gomes’ Arabian Nights is both the entertaining film that he desired to make when fictionally hired at the start of the film and the movie that he felt he needed to make but didn’t feel capable of, as the fictional director who abandoned his crew.
Does that sound convoluted? Like I said, this is a dense but extremely rewarding viewing experience due to all the layers that Gomes is applying. Let’s begin with the whimsical sections of the film: the ones with genies, wizards, and rowing men. For those are the stories Gomes knows will make you view the next film in his series, much like how Scheherazade broke up her stories to save her own life, day by day.
After setting up the plight of the dock workers in The Restless One, Gomes gives us a batch of international businessmen who encounter a wizard on the side of the road. The wizard tells the men that his breath can give each of the men both a larger penis and a constant erection. The men accept the invitation, and at first, they love their virile potency. Once it becomes painful and more of a hinderance on their day to day lives they pay the wizard the entire tax endowment from their citizens in exchange for deflating their penises. That is Gomes’ comical way of explaining the ego of Portugal’s leaders who bartered their own desires against what they were entrusted to maintain—social services—for their country.
In The Desolate One, a judge’s ability to keep order is tested at a seemingly simple tribunal in which all of the faults of the government and the governed are revealed in an increasingly convoluted case. The original hearing is a trivial dispute over property, but each layer of the story the judge hears reveals a new grievance from the audience. She listens to testimonies from a genie who fell into the wrong hands, the ghost of a cow who conversed with an olive tree, a Spaniard who’s been jailed for inability to provide child support to his Portuguese baby mama, the representative for a Chinese businessman who’s reaped the rewards from Portugal’s Golden Visa program (and given the country a positive rating on TripAdvisor) and that businessman’s entire flock of 13 mail order brides. The testimonies go around in a swirling, magnificently mystical circle that reveals the dizzying whirlpool effect of neither the government or its citizens being able to take accountability for any of their actions.
In The Enchanted One, Scheherazade ventures beyond the castle to find more stories to tell because she’s nearly reached 1,000 nights of storytelling, and has little more to draw from. She encounters a wind genie, a pickpocket, a daft beauty who’s fathered nearly all of the island’s populace, and then finally her father, who tells her of the strange (and very real) hobbies that he’s seen Lisbon’s men take up in order to pass their extremely empty and hopeless days: training birds for singing competitions.
While the above sections are the most entertaining (and satirical) sections of the films, it is the attempts of the Portuguese to carry on day-to-day that make up the majority of Gomes’ trilogy. These are Scheherazade’s silent thoughts and observations. In The Restless One, she observes a man who organizes the yearly New Year’s run into the cold and bitter ocean. This man knows that for the unemployed people he interviews for benefits every day, this New Year’s run is one of the few days that promise a jolt for still being alive. In The Desolate One, she observes the inhabitants of an apartment complex whose neighbors can only talk to one another while in the presence of a friendly dog. In The Enchanted One, it is the jobless men who move all of their attention to the ability of their finches to sing. These men enter the finches into inelegant contests—under tattered tarps, on the outskirts of town—to compete against other lonely men (who know why their caged birds sing).
The above sections are less lively (sometimes nearly numbingly so), but they are entirely necessary for this call-and-response film between Gomes’ conscience and Scheherazade’s creativity. Both the filmmaker’s conscience and the future Queen’s penchant for captivating storytelling come from the same places: a fear of their ruler, and a hope to spare the countrymen the carelessness of their King. As Scheherazade, the genie at the tribunal, and Punk Maria (the youthful co-worker who assists with arranging the cold New Year’s swim) a special mention goes to Crista Alfaiate, who beautifully transforms herself throughout the film, as a voice to both Gomes’ anger and Scheherazade’s hope.
For the patient, Arabian Nights is a marvel. It pushes filmmaking into a new realm of the senses, to a place where it is okay to become sleepy. You know a new jolt will come. Following Gomes’ previous film, the near-silent, black-and-white, and entirely romantic Tabu—which launched the director into the international cinephile’s consciousness—Arabian Nights was an immense risk. But it is a six-hour tale that reinforces a hope for filmmakers to not abandon their audiences in times of trouble, but to engage with them, and listen to them.
Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One will play in New York City, December 4-10; Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One will play in New York City, December 11-17; Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One will play in New York City, December 18-24. Other US cities to be announced.
The three films played throughout the New York Film Festival, which ran from September 26 to October 10. The rest of our NYFF coverage is below:
- ‘The Walk’ review
- ‘Bridge of Spies’ review
- ‘Steve Jobs’ review
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt interview for ‘The Walk’
- Guy Maddin interview for ‘The Forbidden Room’