I’m fairly new to the cinema of Miguel Gomes; my awareness and interest in him piqued by his 2012 film Tabu, a collision of styles with a two-fold narrative that I found charming in a Wes Anderson fashion – well, the fanciful extended flashback fairy tale of its second half – but overall somewhat listless. A film I could appreciate, certainly, but one I didn’t whole heartedly enjoy (confession time; it took me two attempts to make it through the film in its entirety).
News that his follow-up would be a three-part refashioning of ‘The One Thousand And One Nights’ certainly raised an eyebrow, so I’ve been drawn back to the well of an evident cinephile who is only too eager to manipulate the form freely to his own ends. Bright yellow text advises the viewer that this is not a straight-forward retelling of the Arabian classic. Far from it. Instead Gomes has been inspired to use its anthology format to tell a variety of stories that connect thematically to Portugal’s economic dire straits circa the time of filming (2013/2014). Gomes’ Arabian Nights is divided up with three sub-headings; The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One and (fortunately?) my local independent is running each installment over consecutive weeks. First up, naturally, The Restless One.
I’ve resorted to telling my experience here in terms of a first person narrative quite simply because the first two hours of Gomes’ audacious project have detached me considerably from the usual vernacular that I tend to draw upon. Arabian Nights is, so far as volume one presents, contrary to a fault, brazenly throwing out expectations of what cinema should or shouldn’t be. It’s some twenty minutes before the film’s story-time format presents itself. Instead we open with two or even three documentaries overlapping one another; the sombre and moving impact of austerity on Viana’s declining shipyard, a day in the life of an exterminator who specialises in detonating wasps nests, and – most fanciful of all – a faux depiction of Gomes himself abandoning his film in a panic. Scenes of blasé crew members beating the bushes looking for him rank among volume one’s funniest.
It is only once these three chattering forms settle into something approaching a chaotic groove that Gomes changes up, introducing his own Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) and spilling forth the first of the three extended vignettes that make up the remainder of The Restless One.
In a screening already sparsely populated (and in the majority by senior citizens), the first walk-outs began as story one – “The Men With Hard-Ons” – got into, ahem, full swing. The most cartoonish of the initial stories presented, Gomes’ first play-within-a-play sees a number of government officials struggling to wrangle the Portuguese budget without cutting further public spending at the behest of a foreign delegation. Their coastal camel ride is interrupted by a wizard claiming that their woes are caused by their collective impotence. As the one suspicious female delegate looks on, the menfolk spray their crotches with the wizard’s elixir, hoping that solving their own personal deficiencies will help them make up for their professional failings. However, their bulging trousers prove too distracting and impossible to quell, lest they hasten their country’s woes by giving in to the wizard’s ransom to remove their erections.
As an outsider to Portugal’s recent economic woes, the specifics that this satirical metaphor alludes to escape me somewhat, but the seemingly universal incompetence and corruption of political figures manages to allow enough footholds to make it through. Less sturdy are the following sections, “The Story Of The Cockerel And The Fire” and lastly (for now) “The Bath Of The Magnificents” (itself broken up into three further sub-chapters / testimonials).
“The Cockerel…” retells the apparently true story of one such bird that was placed on trial for public disturbance when sounding in the dawn. It’s fun and whimsical, but awash with further comments on electoral logic (or lack thereof) and, like each story here, dissolves into nothingness only to be replaced as and when Gomes deems it time we moved on. Into The Restless One‘s final, ambling forty minutes, “…The Magnificents” sees the tone sour as economic hardships weigh heavy on the film once more. The aforementioned testimonials – those titular ‘Magnificents’ – advise us mainly of the depression and sadness of unemployment. These speeches are framed around a New Year’s day swim and an explosive beached whale (the latter providing a jolting kick to what has, by this stage, become something of an endurance test). By this point the audience I had spent the film with had thinned. Considerably.
Arabian Nights is cinema as caustic, topical art, splattered with wit that is both surrealist (Luis Bunuel’s 70’s films spring to mind) and satirical. Lacking a strong frame of political reference makes a lot of this journey boggling, while Gomes’ expansive format evidently feels the constraints of its own meager budget. In contrast to the sheen of Tabu, Arabian Nights often has the feel of a one-man-show spun out on a shoestring. Even the film stock seems old and prone to pocks and scratches, like some soothsaying warning filmed in the 80’s and only recently unearthed. It has the grimy feel of video; something which makes the whole project feel like an elaborate home movie, one every bit as indulgent as it can be.
At this stage I must admit that my patience has been sorely tested, and when an on-screen countdown led to just more film, I caught myself glancing at the aisle, contemplating whether I might also walk out on Gomes’ project. That I’ll be back for volume 2 at present isn’t necessarily a certainty.
I hesitate to score these films individually and reserve the right, in this instance, to come back to amend them should the remainder of Gomes’ project bring things into tighter focus. But, on this evidence, the baffling and wantonly contrary is doing this trilogy few favours when the underlying preoccupation is so unrelentingly bleak. Roll on The Desolate One. I can hardly wait.