Even in the midst of a typical year’s film output, with its tendency towards the safe and the average, you never can tell when an epic might break out. The artist who has created a series of increasingly excellent and challenging works can’t help but want to ignite a massive explosion of creative energy, a Don Quixote or a Gulliver’s Travels, appearing suddenly on the world stage to confound everyone. Portuguese director Miguel Gomes gave us three features in the last decade, each more daring and experimental than the last, culminating in the marvelous Tabu, from 2012, that I reviewed here. Now with his fourth film, he’s working on a big canvas—it’s called Arabian Nights, and it’s six hours of wild storytelling blended with reportage. Don’t panic, the six hours are divided into three parts. Now, did he worry that no one will spend the time to watch the whole film? I don’t think so. The length is appropriate for the vision.
In the first part, “The Restless One,” Gomes begins with a dilemma. Portugal is suffering under a senseless policy of economic austerity that is destroying the country’s social fabric. An awkwardly informative attempt to document two parallel local stories—the shutting down of an important shipyard and efforts to exterminate a plague of wasps—ends with Gomes running away from his production and hiding from his crew. How can he make an entertaining film and at the same time a film that seriously addresses the current crisis in modern life?
The answer is a series of tales with a structure similar to that of the famous collection of Arabian folklore, The 1001 Nights. Just as in that book, we have a young woman telling stories in order to stay alive. But in this version, the stories use magical realism, satire, first-person narratives of actual events, and fanciful combinations of myth and realism to bring us a picture of Portugal, the crisis in the souls of the Portuguese, and by extension the predicament of us all, responding to conditions since the crash of the world economy.
Part One focuses mostly on work, where we encounter a rooster being put on trial for crowing at all hours, which morphs into a tale of a love triangle that ends in arson. There’s also a man getting a medical check-up inside of a whale, and an account of a swimming club for the unemployed which breaks up into the interlocking stories of three of its members. The second part, “The Desolate One,” goes deeper, focusing on the law, in which a judge tries to navigate through the hopelessly complex and bizarre cases that come before her. Later, the story of a marital suicide pact in the projects told from the perspective of their cute pet terrier, melds compassion and dark humor in disconcerting fashion. By the time we get to Part Three, “The Enchanted One,” we are ready to explore the realm of art, in which our supposed narrator, Scheherazade, celebrates in a confusing carnival of pure imagination. The climax of Part Three concerns a group of Lisbon slum dwellers who catch finches and then train them to compete in singing contests. This, like other threads of the film, is based on actual events.
Like any six hour film, there is a danger of exhaustion in Arabian Nights, which is an intentional effect, part of making the experience vivid. However, the three parts are screened separately. This gloriously ambitious work of poetry and folly is not anything like you’d expect. And my advice is—that you should see it.