I sit here dumbfounded, perplexed, baffled and almost impressed. Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy comes to a close in a manner I could not possibly have anticipated. In a way it’s genius. In a more pressing way it’s also probably the worst cinematic experience I’ve ever had. I can’t decide if I want to praise Gomes or put a firework through his letterbox.
To recap briefly, Gomes’ Arabian Nights is not a direct retelling of the classic stories, but rather an examination of Portugal’s austerity crisis assembled in a similar style, with fables recounted by Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) that dovetail directly back into this overarching theme.
After the middling levels of interest piqued by Vol. 1, I was roused by the more acerbic Vol. 2, remarking only last week on the film’s pointed satire. Vol. 3 veers willfully off on a tangent so staggeringly boring and relentless that I found myself repeating a mantra throughout it’s entire 125 minute running time: “You’ve come this far… don’t just walk out now”.
I nearly did many, many times over. Vol. 3 opens with the series’ most direct correlation to its inspiration, as we catch up with Scheherazade and follow a few of her encounters on the Portuguese coast, including a tentative kinship with the wandering Paddleman (Carloto Cotta). These scenes feel pleasant if aimless, as Gomes replaces voice over narration with reams of on-screen text inserted into the nominal action. It settles Vol. 3 into the steady crawl it will stonefistedly perpetuate for the next two hours. A crawl which only slows down.
There are two further ‘stories’ to follow, but in reality one of these is only five minutes in length. “Hot Forest” acts as little more than an interlude sandwiched in the middle of “The Inebriating Chorus of Chaffinches”. By far the longest of the sections in Arabian Nights, “Chaffinches” is also the most tedious. Gomes switches styles, going back to the (seeming) documentary filmmaking that opened Vol. 1. His focus here is on a group of unemployed men enthused with chaffinches. They trap the birds, keep them, talk to one another about them and ultimately attend a competition, the purpose of which is to see whose birds can produce the widest variety of sounds.
And oh my is it dull.
The emptiness of this extended journey into banality saw me journey steadily through a variety of emotions as I shuffled in my cinema seat (and as audience members wearily exited; less patient with their own internal mantras). Restlessness, impatience, anger, utter disinterest. There’s no pace to the 90+ minutes we spend in the company of these quiet, unemployed men. They are expressionless, to the point where one wonders if even they are really the enthusiasts the film insists they are. Most look bored, depressed, listless. Gomes films them with infectious ambivalence.
Further reams of Scheherazade’s frustrated musings and matter-of-fact explanations clutter the screen. Repetitive yellow text that drags the viewer through roughly a fortnight of nothing. Reading them becomes less and less interesting. I began to actively resent their presence. And the noise. The constant chirping of chaffinches. To the point where it becomes a sort of serene water torture. To the point I became convinced – am still convinced – I’ll be visited by them in my sleep for nights on end to come. The chirping ghosts of pure tedium. Gripping the seat rests, my mantra changed to, “Please, make it stop” interspersed with, “This better be heading somewhere…”
The competition takes place without fanfare, excitement, even the faintest morsel of intrigue. It’s as vacant as anything preceding it. The “Hot Forest” interlude that precedes it – a brief story recounted by a Chinese woman which plays over footage of a protest rally – only acts as further fuel to the frustration when we return to those sad men and their chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Tweet. Chirp. Chirrup. Chirp. Chirrup. Chirp. Tweet. The competition is over.
Chico Chapas (who appeared in Vol. 2 as a murderer on the lam) is prominent throughout. One supposes his life as a chaffinch enthusiast is his real identity, but there’s really no telling. He finds a man caught in a chaffinch net and sets him free. This man is actually a wind spirit who thanks him. Chapas walks down a country road. The camera follows him for five minutes as a school choir sings “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” on the soundtrack.
That’s it. The end.
I left the cinema stunned, perplexed and laughing. I mean really. The entire thing felt like a trick. A con. A joke with no punchline. One of those long shaggy dog stories that deliberately leads nowhere, as if films one and two were an elaborate trolling mechanism; a ploy or experiment to hook an audience only to give them absolutely nothing.
But I’m starting to wonder. Vol. 3 – by far the least enjoyable visit to the cinema I’ve ever had – might actually be very clever indeed. Is Gomes’ intent here to inspire in his audience the same feelings of frustration and resentment felt by the people of Portugal toward their government? Is this in fact the cinema of empathy ruled by a director happy to play the devil so long as it triggers a level of understanding and appreciation through sheer hostility?
In terms of enjoyment, Arabian Nights Vol. 3 – The Enchanted One is an awful, awful experience. But I’m still thinking about it. The gears continue to grind as I wonder just how far Gomes is prepared to go to teach us a lesson in feeling abandoned to futility.
I’m reminded of the increasingly experimental stand-up comedy of Stewart Lee; the Pied Piper of the British liberal intelligentsia. In his latest (and last) series of Comedy Vehicle Lee ended a set with an extended bit in which he pretends to eat a poppadom. He stands there chewing nothing, the microphone right by his lips, glazed eyes looking out at the audience. It feels like an anti-joke. It’s not funny. Then it is funny because it’s still happening, then it’s funny because the audience is perpetuating the strangeness of it. And Lee’s still standing there chewing nothing. It’s a volatile, self-aware experiment in comedy in which the audience is doing all of the work. But Lee is in charge.
Gomes feels totally in command of what he has produced here. I’ve got to give him credit for that. Watching Vol. 3 felt Sisyphian. It’s endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill; the act itself the only meaning in the act at the time. It’s only afterwards that the intention suggests itself. Too bad learning the lesson is such an unrelenting hassle.
Chaffinch. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches.
Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinche. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches. Chaffinches.