Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights Trilogy

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Laura Clifford 
Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One

Robin Clifford 

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes ("Tabu") goes in search of true tales that will encompass the current state of his country, its government failing to support a people in economic crisis.  But when he cannot find a connection between two events happening at the same time in the same place, he runs away, leaving the job to Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate). She will find restlessness, desolation and, finally, enchantment in the "Arabian Nights Trilogy."

Laura:
This wildly ambitious three-parter, which runs almost six and a half hours, repeatedly informs us that it is not an adaptation of 'Arabian Nights,' although it uses its structure.  Yet, we travel from documentary style coverage of real events in present day Portugal to 'the antiquity of time,' Scheherazade, the daughter of the Vizier (Américo Silva) tasked with providing virginal brides to the brutal king who murders them after each wedding night, present in each of the trilogy's three volumes. It is she who, having asked her father to marry her to the man, begins each tale with 'It hath reached me, O auspicious King,' telling her wildly varied stories until the dawn, leaving the ruler hanging so that he must keep her alive one more night to hear their endings.

Although not what one normally thinks of as an omnibus film, the trilogy succumbs to the pitfalls of so many that have come before, some of its passages extraordinary, others less so.  But the entire experience is so unusual, even its oddly unsatisfying bits have their moments.  The most truly inspired piece holds the center of "Volume 2: The Desolate One."

In "Volume 1: The Restless One," we see Gomes struggling to connect the layoff of shipyard workers with a man hired to eradicate wasp nests.  He and two members of his crew are buried in sand up to their necks and put on trial for his failure.  It is here that he calls upon Scheherazade.  Her first story is a present day political fable, 'The Men with Hard Ons,' in which a peasant accuses a group of government ministers, including one woman, impotent.  He offers a restorative aerosol spray to a banker and soon the men are virile again, to the detriment of their political judgement. On the 445th night of Scheherazade's marriage she begins 'The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,' about a rooster who is sued for crowing too early in the morning. This story is not only amusing, but features beautiful shots of a coastal town at night and an underlying parable.  'The Swim of the Magnificent' features our narrator as a punk advising the man seeking funding for an annual swim in the freezing sea.  It begins with his nightmare which takes place in the belly of a whale and ends with a whale carcass on the beach being detonated, scattering blubber far and wide.

"Volume 2: The Desolate One" begins with the series most perplexing tale, 'The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels'.'  In Arabian Nights Volume 2: The Desolate One this tale, an old man who has shot his wife and daughter hides out in the hills, aided by a delivery van driver and entertained by prostitutes.  When he is eventually caught, the town greets him as a folk hero.  It is difficult to understand just what Gomes is getting at with this draggy story other than its embrace of a down and out criminal over the authorities.  But if this is the least of the trilogy, it is followed by the best, 'The Tears of the Judge,' a fantastical tale of a judge (Luísa Cruz) who holds an outdoor court to prosecute renters who sold their landlord's furniture.  One piece of testimony leads into the next until she is faced with a tragically murdered cow, an exuberant trio of masked thieves, a banker wishing to destroy the local health care system for his own profit and an unbottled genie! This one is an allegorical trail of absurdities that lead the judge to despair. A three-parter about the fate of an abandoned dog, Dixie, who lights up the lives of all who come across her observes the various residents of a housing complex who take her in.  Its central part is a collection of brief snippets about an out-of-control New Year's Eve party which forever blighted the building, a parrot and an eviction.

Gomes uses an inspired transition from the end of his second movie to the beginning of his third with ghostly presences gracing his screen.  "Volume 3: The Enchanted One" takes us to Baghdad (Marseilles stands in) where the Vizier has mistaken a dancer for his deceased wife.  His daughter, fearing for her life, escapes the palace, meets her father at a Ferris Wheel and resumes her tales.  What begins withArabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One underwater Swing music, an Adonis-like Paddleman (whom Scheherazade basically calls a dumb blonde), a break dancer named Elvis and 'The Genie of the Wind,' all set in ancient times, gives way to 'The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinche,' a long, fascinating piece about blue collar men in present day Lisbon who are bird trappers.  We learn about how to catch finches and 'turn them' (modify their song) in order to rack up trophies at the three area competitions.  A segue to 'Hot Forest,' the story of a playboy who abandons his Chinese mistress who nonetheless lives a happy life in Lisbon, is perhaps a parallel to these trapped songbirds and it is with them and the men who obsess over them that Gomes leaves us, with varying riffs on a collective obsession including a genie who bumbles into one of the men's nets.

Gomes constantly changes his pacing and tone, going from long formats to collections of events observed, from tragedy to comedy, from docudrama to fantasy.  The past intermingles with the present.  Narration, overlapping dialogue, textual titles and song (the Carpenters?!) are all part of his storytelling toolkit.  Do his films leave us with a picture of modern day Portugal?  Yes, in a crazy quilt type of fashion, they do. This sprawling, messy epic trips the light fantastic across the screen and right off of it, forming a kind of dream history.

Grade:  B

Robin:
Robin also gives the "Arabian Nights" trilogy a B.
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