Review: Arabian Nights Vol. 2 – The Desolate One

Director: Miguel Gomes

Stars: Luísa Cruz, Chico Chapas, Carloto Cotta

It’s my birthday. In a move that felt more like penance than a treat, I elected to spend a portion of the day alone, returning to Miguel Gomes’ beguiling and confounding trilogy which had something of an inauspicious start last week. My local independent cinema is showing an instalment every Tuesday. Having made it a third of the way and despite my frazzled response to the opening salvo, curiosity overwhelmed me  – where would Gomes take us next?

Where Volume 1 spent a good 20 minutes establishing an appropriately perplexing framing device, Volume 2 dives right in, warning us once again that Gomes’ project bares no resemblance to the more commonly known Arabian Nights, instead borrowing it’s framework to tell tales linked to Portugal’s recent economic troubles at the hands of oppressive austerity.

Following my apathy to the results thus far, little in the intervening week had encouraged me to delve deeper into the circumstances bristling behind the camera. Indeed, I was rather curious to continue viewing these films without a specific point of reference in order to see if one is precisely required.

Volume 2 starts off with the series’ most gruelling slog so far. Continuing the ambling drift that left Volume 1 teetering on entropy, “Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ‘Without Bowels'” is near enough the toughest test of my concentration since Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride’s SilenceThe story follows the defiantly unhurried roaming of an aging man named Simão (Chico Chapas) as he evades the authorities by tottering about the Portuguese hills, occasionally dropping into people’s homes or fantasising about butt-slapping orgies with three naked beauties.

The latter may make it sound more eventful or salaciously entertaining than the reality, which is rather more numbing. One sustained shot allows us to witness Chapas eating a significant portion of roasted partridge as Gomes almost goads his audience into yelling, “Get on with it!” Monty Python style (and the ghost of Python rears it’s head in both the following stories, much more pleasingly). The connection to austerity here may lie only in the brutal crimes Simão perpetrated that left him on the lam. Regardless, it makes for a pessimistic beginning, suggesting that Volume 2‘s intention is to double down on the absurd banality of Volume 1.

Fortunately, with all hope dwindling, the series finds its feet in spectacular fashion with “The Tears Of The Judge”; an extended scene in which a red cloaked female judge (Luísa Cruz) attempts to pass sentence on a seemingly ordinary crime at a moonlit amphitheatre. However, as she attempts to understand the circumstances of the crime, she only unravels further injustices of an increasingly bizarre nature. Pretty soon everyone in the audience is either an accused party or a victim, or occasionally both.

The appearance of a pantomime cow giving testimony might suggest the sequence has reached its comic peak, but in reality Gomes is only just warming up at this point. A brigade of masked criminals speaking in preposterous voices signals the second and more pronounced conjuring of that Python spirit.

Cruz is fantastic as the increasingly exasperated judge, and the entire section is such a marked tonal about-turn for Arabian Nights that virtually all prior listlessness is temporarily forgiven. Gomes evokes a beautiful atmosphere in this sequence also. The sound is delicately evocative of a hushed summer night. There’s an intimacy to proceedings that is echoed in the geography.

Not inconsequentially, “The Tears Of The Judge” is framed by a further gag, as Cruz segues into the film via a telephone call with her daughter, who has just been deflowered after carefully selecting her lover. She advises she intends to make her man a cake. On returning to the scene some 35 minutes later, we find that she’s ultimately left the job to the maid.

The livelier tone of “The Tears Of The Judge” is eschewed in with the arrival of bombastic pop balladeering on the soundtrack, and it’s something that conspicuously peppers the remainder of Volume 2. With its large yellow text denoting chapter headings, Gomes’ film almost starts to feel like an art house response to the increasingly cartoonish trappings of Quentin Tarantino.

The Desolate One‘s final story is “The Owners of Dixie”, itself broken up into three sub-sections. The story charts the changing ownership of a cute little dog in a block of flats, a framework which allows Gomes to sketch in a variety of different scenarios, breathing life (and death) into a working class tower.

This long finale features some of the series’ most indelible imagery so far, from smoke-filled corridors (the curling plumes are serenely beautiful) to incongruous herds of sheep on the grounds to scenic dusk shots set to belting Lionel Richie. Complimenting the aforementioned smoke is an evocative mist that plumes around the buildings, making them feel like castles in the sky. It’s enough to make one wonder what Gomes would have produced if he’d been handed J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to adapt. One suspects it would have been every bit as idiosyncratic as Ben Wheatley’s vision.

“The Owners of Dixies” nods pointedly to Python’s dead parrot sketch, further knitting the sense of connectivity between these three stories, but it also speaks – as “The Tears Of The Judge” did – of a kind of trickle-down cause and effect. Gomes pointedly advises the one person Dixie’s initial owner would prefer the dog didn’t end up with and why. We’re then left to watch a Goldbergian set of circumstances unfold that lead inevitably to this very outcome, capped with one of the simplest yet most touching special effect shots in memory. Gomes appears to be suggesting that, while some transactions may be perfectly innocuous, none are without consequence.

All of which leaves me a great deal more invigorated for the looming third and final part of this indulgent, ambitious folly of Gomes’. With the sensibility throughout steered firmly toward comic surrealism, it seems a bit much to ask for an instance of eleventh hour coherence, but on the evidence of Volume 2 there’s plenty to suggest this long journey will have been worth it.

Now, where’s the cake?

7 of 10

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