Once in a blue moon a film will come along that defies criticism, understanding and any conventional sense of logic. But left to percolate and ruminate in the back of one’s mind for long enough it proves to be something quite brilliant. With Arabian Nights, a six-hour epic split into three distinct volumes, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has created such a film. It is not undue praise to call it a work of art.
A rich, beguiling tapestry that stitches together all manner of storytelling techniques, it interweaves the legendary middle-eastern tales of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights with a critique of the Portuguese government’s handling of the economic recession. Gomes considers the crippling austerity measures as tantamount to a populace held hostage but remains conscious, wary even, of a filmmaker’s perilous place in such pitiful times. However, it is through his visionary and at times unfathomable brand of cinema that he sheds light on the plight of the downtrodden. It is anti-establishment filmmaking at its most off-the-wall. As many questions are answered here, more are left up to interpretation.
Best seen in conjunction with one another, it is necessary to underline that full comprehension is secondary here to the overall sensation upon reflecting on the complete work. Though the first volume, The Restless One, may be somewhat aloof and bemusing, perseverance is key as by the end of the final instalment, via osmosis or some other kind of mythic science, every audience member will take something from this extraordinary cinematic experience. There are substantial tonal shifts across the films and in this first part there exists a palpable sense of injustice and resentment as hard working Portuguese lose their jobs for no reason whatsoever. The testimony of shipbuilders, laid off for lack of work, opens the film. An extended metaphor of the destruction of hard working bees (the people) by menacing, deadly wasps (the government) ploughs the issue further.
Clear links are made to the source text in the film’s chaptered structure, the end notes reading like the index of a book. We veer into definite left-field territory with The Men with Hard-ons and The Story of the Cockerel and The Fire before swinging back to a documentary style third act, The Swim of the Magnificents. These talking head sequences are touching, more direct and relatable given their naturalism. The first volume of Arabian Nights may be rooted more firmly in the present but past fiction and contemporary fact begin to intermingle and overlap in perfect disharmony here. Is it erratic, seemingly incoherent and downright befuddling? Yes. But embrace the chaos.