Brandon Nowalk reviews Arabian Nights, which he describes as the blind men’s elephant: miniseries and short story cycle, documentary and fantasy, proletarian and prohibitive. It’s an enormous six-hour movie split into three volumes, made up mostly of separate smaller stories. The film is available on VOD, Fandor, and Blu Ray.
“This film is too complicated for me,” director Miguel Gomes told Cinemascope at Cannes. “I think I’ll understand it better weeks from now.” He took the words out of my mouth. If not even the director can wrap his head around the undulating oobleck of Arabian Nights, what hope do I have? Not that it’s a daunting sit. It’s a funny, fantastical collection of stories. What’s hard is wrapping it in a bow.
Arabian Nights is the blind men’s elephant: miniseries and short story cycle, documentary and fantasy, proletarian and prohibitive. It’s an enormous six-hour movie split into three volumes, made up mostly of separate smaller stories, such as the trial of an antsy rooster and a meeting of merchants more focused on their dicks than the debt crisis they’re trying to resolve. The material for these stories comes largely from real life. Gomes employed a team of journalists to sift through Portuguese news for such strange but true stories from all over the country between the summers of 2013 and 2014.
During that time, opening titles tell us, Portugal “was held hostage to a program of economic austerity” in response to the Great Recession. The IMF bailed out the nation, but to meet its deficit goals, the government cut public sector salaries and pensions, raised taxes, and consolidated tax brackets. It scrounged up some additional cash at the federal equivalent of a garage sale by privatizing its water and electricity utilities as well as its national postal service. The government even tried to cut holiday bonuses, unemployment, and sick leave, but those measures were rejected by the courts. In short, the workers bore the burden of paying off Portugal’s bailout.
That left Gomes in a quandary. How can he make a lavish, fantastical epic in a Portugal devastated by post-Recession austerity policies? He means it physically as much as ethically. How is it even possible to bridge the divide between the timeless and the timely, the escapist and the engaged, the imagined and the real?