Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’ mind-blowing three-part epic on austerity-afflicted Portugal, finally makes it to German theatres.
Miguel Gomes cemented his status as a major talent with the 2012 monochrome masterpiece Tabu. However, this 2015 follow-up – a six-hour trilogy, inspired by both the recent Portuguese financial crisis and the classic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights – may sound a little daunting. Happily, Arabian Nights is about as far from an earnest diatribe as you could imagine. In endearingly self-deprecating fashion, Gomes casts himself as a director who feels duty-bound to investigate the consequences of a shipyard closure in Viana do Castelo, but has no idea how to fashion this into compelling cinema. He resolves to invoke the spirit of legendary queen Scheherazade, who tamed a tyrant king through the power of her storytelling. And so both filmmaker and narrator embark on a quest to spin the most engaging yarns they can, based on events that occurred while Portugal was feeling the sting of crippling austerity measures.
What follows is a chaotic, bewildering, utterly enchanting fusion of social and magical realism. Some stories are straightforwardly satirical – in “The Men with Hard-Ons”, a wizard curses the Portuguese prime minister and his cohorts with throbbing erections, which will only subside once the country’s public deficit has been reduced. Others are more melancholy – “The Owners of Dixie” offers a heartbreaking glimpse into the lives of the disenfranchised residents of a dilapidated housing block. But Gomes adds a dash of sly humour and optimism to the tale by telling it from the perspective of a Maltese poodle, who mysteriously arrives at the estate in search of a new home.
The film hits cinemas in three separate installments, released over the course of a month at the height of summer. While the intention may be to offer discerning audiences a quality alternative to the season’s multiplex fodder, we can’t help but worry that such a commitment as this would be an easier sell at literally any other time of year. This release strategy also does a disservice to the undeniably oblique Volume 3. Much of it takes the form of a languid faux-documentary about a group of Chaffinch keepers, which relies on dense passages of on-screen text to propel its narrative forward. In many ways it’s a fitting final chapter, giving voice to victims of social injustice whilst paying tribute to their resilience and creativity. But it’s far more effective when viewed as the coda to a single epic work than it is as a structurally bizarre standalone film.
Nevertheless, we’d implore you to spend a few of your precious summer evenings in the company of Scheherazade and Gomes. Give yourself over to its willful anachronisms and confounding pacing, and Arabian Nights may be the most rewarding cinematic experience you have all year.
Arabian Nights | Directed by Miguel Gomes (Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland 2015) with Crista Alfaiate, Maria Rueff, Bruno Bravo. Starts July 28 (Vol 1), Aug 11 (Vol 2), Aug 25 (Vol 3).