Not having seen the three part epic in its complete form, I’m still a bit apprehensive about writing about the first part, the first volume, of Miguel Gomes’ grand opus, Arabian Nights. The choice to divide and distribute the epic in three volumes is, doubtlessly, a commercially sound choice, while also allowing the film to have a broader audience that would tremble at the possibility of watching a six hour film. While I understand this, it still feel as if I need to watch the complete film before offering my thoughts on any of the volumes. But, since that will most likely not happen and the last volume will only be available in October, let’s throw caution to the wind and explore some of my thoughts on the first volume, having in mind that in the future, after watching the entirety of Arabian Nights, my opinion may have changed considerably.
The film, which recently arrived at Portuguese cinemas, brings with itself an impressive baggage of social, political and artistic expectations as well as undeniable international prestige. Premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and awarded both in Australia and Poland, the film has been revealing itself as one of the most ambitious works of cinema this year, showing a political rage and intense satire that, to me, seems to have been slowly dissipating from most of European cinema in the past few decades.
The ambition of Arabian Nights, which is a sort of epic of the current economic and social crisis, is undoubtedly monumental. And, when speaking of ambition, I’m speaking of both its narrative and volatile thematic content as well as its awe-inspiring form and structure. Example, the beginning of the film looks at the closing of the shipyards in Viana do Castelo, approaching its subject with a perspective that is both documentary-like and lyrical. The audience watches disperse images, gritty and raw while being beautiful as masterfully filmed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (usual DP of Apichatpong Weerasethakull), joined by a constant voice-over of the now unemployed workers. Simultaneous to these images of Viana do Castelo, we have a parallel story, an Asiatic wasp invasion that is devastating the native bees. The struggle to eliminate the invaders also contributes some of the most beautiful images Ive seen in cinemas all year, showing the burning of a hive during the night, filling the darkness with a rain of fiery sparks.
The director, an inescapable presence in the first chapters, states that he can’t come up with a connection between the two different elements of these initial moments, which seems to be a bit disingenuous. A foreign threat entering Portugal and causing the destruction its indigenous population doesn’t seem to be particularly difficult to metaphorically relate to the film’s political intentions. The director apparent confusion is, however, one of the greatest facets of the film, culminating in the scene where Gomes appears on screen running away from his crew and from his film. The creative crisis joined by the social and economic crisis and in this torrent of desperation genius is born, the structure of the rest of the film is born. But it’s not directness and clarity what emerges from this genius, but another path, one of glorious ridicule and absurdist narrative.
The structure and method of the remaining film have already been widely discusses, both nationally and internationally, but, basically, Gomes employed the help of journalists that would collect several news stories from across the country during a period of 12 months, thus providing material for the episodic structure that utilizes the character of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, The storyteller first materializes in an oneiric chapter about the virgins of Bagdad, here standing for the journalists that helped Gomes, who supply the Arabic queen with stories, which we watch throughout the following chapters of the film. Tales, satirical and crass, filled with a strange social realism occasionally peppered with fantasy and biblical tonalities.
The first volume offers three tales, “The Men with Hard-Ons”, “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire” and “The Bath of the Magnificents”. In the first of these tales we have a political satire, in which Portuguese politicians, amongst them the Prime Minister (Rogério Samora), receive a group of implacable foreigners and try to negotiate the economic measures to be imposed on the Portuguese people. In the midst of this, we have a magical man from the French colonies in Africa, a spray that produces otherworldly erections, and a parade of disgusting behaviours and decisions that demonstrate a frightening distancing between the country’s current social calamity and the incompetent power games played by the European politicians. The humour is crass and grotesque, the satire couldn’t be more obvious, there’s an undeniable rage behind each second of the episode, and all of this is presented in a glorious torrent of ridicule.
The second story features a cockerel in Resende, which by singing in the middle of the night provokes the anger of the community, resulting in the animal being put on trial. If the first tale is am acidic political satire portrayed by actors that are relatively famous (in Portugal), this one is a delicious absurdist comedy with a deceptively sweet love story between pre-teens, which is revealed to an animal talking judge during the prophetic cockerel’s trial. All of this with non-actors and complete unknowns in contrast with the cast of “Hard-Ons”.
The protagonist of the third tale is a tired and depressed syndicalist (Adriano Luz). He tries to organize the first bath of 2014, an old traditional o the region, among a community drowned in the misery brought upon by the closing of the shipyards. Three times we watch real-life unemployed people of the community talk about their predicament, filmed in long takes and deliberately slow paced. This last tale is thus filled with a suffocating sense of despair that is impossible to shake off, while also including images of biblical undertones like a beached whale that explodes during one of the protagonist’s dreams, who, in such settings, reveals himself as a sort of suffering Job living through the Portuguese crisis.
Such a chaptered structure, as I’ve previously mentions in past reviews, brings with it the particular problem of enticing an audience to compare the separated episodes instead of appreciating the film as a whole. Throughout the film there’s an interesting progression, especially regarding humour. Comparing the three tales, there’s a gradation starting with crass and unavoidable satire, progressing into a pervasive melancholy in the love story retold by the cockerel, and ending with an uncomfortable register of dark comedy that emerges from the misery and despair of both the protagonist and the community.
If I were to choose one of the chapters, falling into the temptation of separating the episodes, I would pick the second tale. There’s something fascinating in the work of the non-actors, in the absurd use of a cockerel for a protagonist, in the unexpected developments of the narrative. The satire is brilliant while containing the melancholy I’ve mentioned above. And it’s filled with a storm of formal and thematic ideas that seem to be at the edge of completely overwhelming the viewer. I’m speaking of, for example, the appearance of a Chinese emperor seems to cast the land itself into a tragedy of fatalistic destruction, the use of cell phone messages creates a game of mistranslations between the voice-over and the written text that extends to the other in other forms, and the mix of almost documentary images with peculiar details like a bowie worn by the cockerel or even the accordionist that follows one of the characters.
It’s easy to establish connections with other auteurs in the history of the art like Pasolini, Kiarostami, Resnais, Andersson, Buñuel, etc, but, despite having done just that, such an effort seems futile and uninteresting having in account the way Gomes emerges as the creator of such an abysmally ambitious cinematic monument. The film is metatextual, intellectual, weirdly populist, documental and mythological in scope. It’s a miraculously clear and direct mixture of these aspects, creating a density that makes this almost a cinematic equivalent of The Lusiads for a contemporary audience. It’s an epic of the Portuguese people, but here, instead of the heroes of the age of Discovery, we have the misery of the social and economic conditions in contemporary Portugal told in the form of stories and legends, as magnificent in their oneiric visions as silly in their humour and tragic in their representation of the absurdities of this country.