By Tanner Tafelski
Sprayed on a wall near the end of the first part of Gomes’ epic film is the graffiti message: “Chaos is my life.” Shortly, after a countdown, that cryptic statement blasts on the soundtrack. It’s the title of a song by the Scottish punk band, The Exploited, which could work as both a characterization of this film and the state of Portugal during its economic crisis in 2013 and 2014.
A mammoth production, Arabian Nights is one six-hour film, but also three two-hour films, for it’s split into parts. As a whole, the film coopts narrative structures and events as well as the picaresque novel’s attitude, and places it, for the most part, in contemporary Portugal. In mood, Arabian Nights is more Fellini than Pasolini. Though Gomes simulates the book’s ribald, scatological humor, he dilutes it. Gomes’ Arabian Nights is not as lovingly blunt as Pasolini’s version, but more whimsical.
Playfulness, however, wouldn’t seem the right way to describe the film if you just saw the first sequence: Gomes kick starts the movie with a camera, gently bobbing up and down, scanning the desolate shipyard in Viana do Castelo. Feeling more like a slideshow than a film, a succession of images follows of the waterfront, a film crew location scouting, the costal town, and accompanied by testimonies from the unemployed dockers.
The film crew turns out to be the one making the film you are now watching. And sure enough, Gomes makes an appearance. The whimsy begins. Unexpectedly, the film switches to him and his crew. He’s capturing the confusion, the chaos that went into the initial production of the film. Yet, the sequence comes off as Gomes exercising with meta-gymnastics. “I’m stupid and abstraction gives me vertigo,” he says at one point on the voiceover narration. On screen, more turtle than man, he sits at a table outside of a café. His eyes glaze over. He seems to huddle inside his bulky jacket with the hood over his head. He gets out of his seat, and simply runs away from his film crew.
As he takes off, the film takes off. From here, Arabian Nights launches into an assortment of tales, tales upon tales, which include: business men with everlasting erections (the camera tracking across a series of crotches, the cinematic version of the Sticky Fingers cover album, but replace denim jeans with pant suits); a talking cockerel for inexplicably crowing at dawn; a kiddie love triangle with “jealousy fire,” with one setting fields aflame at night; and a trio of stories featuring monologues—or dialogues—of unemployment and job loss.
The film is a whirlwind sweeping you up. There’s too much of everything, too much information, and the film’s rhythm seems off. Gomes moves through his stories with little to no pausing for the viewer to catch their breath. By the end of the film, I’m wondering if the “one” in the The Restless One is the viewer?
What a jump in quality! With this second part, Miguel Gomes seems more focused. He settles into his material. He’s comfortable enough to allow room for silence, for pauses, lingering on shots instead of hurrying to the next one, and the next.
And so part two begins with a story that’s recognizable, that’s been told countless times. Some critics call Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ‘Without Bowels’ a western, but it’s more of a man-on-the-run narrative that just so happens to be set in desolate Portuguese landscapes. Simão is an older man with white hair and a well-worn, creased face. He wears a red polo with thin blue stripes. He’s murdered a number of women, including his wife and daughters, and the authorities are tracking him. People call Simão “without bowels” because he’s so thin and willow-like that it looks like he doesn’t have those crucial organs. Out of all of Arabian Nights’ six hours, this sequence is the quietest. It’s a nice respite from the flow of text, of dialogue, in short, words.
After a short episode with a pack of scouts, the film drifts into the next tale, perhaps the funniest of them all: in an amphitheater, a judge listens to a series of confessions, from a husband demanding that his wife give him “puss” morning and night, to a cow (two people in a papier mâché costume) who once talked to a tree, from shrieking thieves in large garish, tribal masks, to the ex-lovers of a Chinese business man. Confoundedly, the stories are connected. The husband’s confession, a simple enough thread to follow, quickly becomes entangled as more and more people speak up.
What makes this section such a delight is Gomes’ visual humor. He repeats a gag, making it infectious. When one of the confessors finishes their story, Gomes will cut away to somewhere in the crowd, opening up a pocket of space in which we didn’t realize was there before. Someone will rise and, inexplicably, tell how they’re tied to the professed crime. Everyone in the theatre seems linked. After hearing one person after another, the judge closes her eyes in annoyance, and shouts the final line of the sequence, the final line after cutting short her speech: “Screw the lot of you!”.
In the final part, a pooched is screwed, metaphorically speaking. A perky, peppy Maltese poodle, Dixie, exchanges owners. First, he’s the beloved pet of a frumpy, tobacco-fueled couple, then a pair of young, on again off again, dope dealers and users, before finally falling into the hands of an older woman’s grandchildren. All owners are depressed, oppressed, cash-strapped, and all live in the same apartment complex. As an interlude, Gomes shows a snapshot of neighbors, of apartment owners and renters, detailing some signature action that characterizes them—a closet which functions as a miniature music recording studio, boys peeping through a hole in their bedroom wall to see their neighbors having sex, a New Year’s Eve party, an eviction, and young Brazilian women who use the roof for themselves to sunbathe in the nude.
By concentrating on fewer episodes than the first part, Gomes dives deeper into them, exploring their diverse structures. In fact, it seems like he syncs with the depositif, the outline, the rules of each of his narratives, whether they are related to spaces (apartments, an amphitheater), creatures (dogs), or genres (man-on-the-run, courtroom drama). The Desolate One is the most effective, most satisfying part of Arabian Nights because it not only shows, but also explores the different shapes and sizes of storytelling.
At long last, along comes Scheherazade, and it’s a bit of a letdown. She appears in the first of three episodes. She’s in a section that’s untethered, that doesn’t have the structural rigor of “The Owners of Dixie” or “The Tears of a Judge” from part two. Before telling a story to her husband, the king Shahryar, in order to delay his intent to kill her, she crops up in Bagdad as well as wandering on an isle. The section is seemingly endless in variety so that you wonder where she’ll be next and with whom? Wait for the next scene to find out.
When Scheherazade gets around to telling Shahryar a bedtime story, one that’s dependent upon her survival, it’s one with the colorful title: “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches”. For the remainder of the film (except for an interlude with a brief tale called “Hot Forest”) Arabian Nights follows a group of burly, working class men in a Lisbon neighborhood who trap finches and use them in competitions.
The film adopts an ethnographic accent as it examines the ins and outs of such a regional, isolated culture. It’s also the apotheosis of Gomes’ compare-and-contrast method of working, showing one trapper, then another and another. We can see the different ways the trappers handle their birds, and prepare them for competitions. We learn about the status of the different men related to their passion. The trappers, for instance, regard an older man, Chico Chapas (who also plays Simão in The Desolate One) as a living legend.
Scheherazade hasn’t left the picture just yet. Appearing and disappearing over the footage is yellow text stating Scheherazade’s actions, her persistent narration to her husband as well as what day it is out of the 1,001. In effect, Gomes overlays documentary and fictional material within shots without seamlessly merging them. As you watch the trappers tend to their finches (a funny, paradoxical image in and of itself, seeing these coarse men lovingly care for such graceful creatures), the text fades from your mind, turning subliminal, as it flashes on and off screen at intervals.
Taken together, Arabian Nights is a film of parts, of sub-parts adopting and abandoning ways of storytelling. It’s a big, shaggy, fatty triptych with plenty of dead time or bland time with occasional moments of grace and brief glimpses of beauty.
Foreign Title: As Mil e Uma Noites
Director: Miguel Gomes
Production Company: O Som e a Fúria/?Shellac Sud/?Komplizen Film/?Box Production
Executive Producer: Luís Urbano
Producer: Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar, Thomas Ordonneau, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Elena Tatti, Thierry Spicher, Elodie Brunner
Screenplay: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro
Cinematographer: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Editor: Telmo Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques, Miguel Gomes
Production Designer: Bruno Duarte, Artur Pinheiro
Sound: Vasco Pimentel
Principal Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Adriano Luz, Americo Silva, Fernanda Loureiro, Carloto Cotta, Rogerio Samora
Countries of Production: Portugal/?France/?Germany/?Switzerland