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?
To ask these questions, Gomes plays himself in Arabian Nights, like he did in Our Beloved Month of August. Gomes can’t just tell a story: he has to lay out the circumstances that give rise to the storytelling. In August, Gomes dramatizes the development of the movie he’s making. He starts with a shaggy assemblage of footage, including scenes where he’s hassled by producers about his lack of progress, and only gradually does the fictional story of summer romance arise out of the documentary footage around a music festival. Even his outright fictions, The Face You Deserve and Tabu, spend their first halves finding the impetus to tell the tales that make up their second. Arabian Nights doesn’t procrastinate as much as its predecessors, but it does open with a stymied Gomes. The prologue intertwines the true stories of a shipyard closure stranding hundreds of workers in unemployment and an exterminator fighting a plague of wasps threatening the local bee population. It begins with the testimony of a stevedore reminiscing about his first encounter with the colossal equipment in a vast shipyard: “I never imagined those things existed…the world has no limits.” A real story of labour inspires a boundless imagination. Meanwhile, Gomes sits at a table depressed. He’s out of focus at first; the camera has to find its subject, just as Gomes has to find his. In a burst of comically exaggerated self-pity, he calls himself “the helpless, paralyzed director.”
Suddenly he bolts, visible only in the window reflection as he flees his production. The idea of a director running away from his movie isn’t half as funny as the Hard Day’s Night trail of crew members chasing after him with their bulky equipment. The prologue ends with the dock workers screwed over while the worker bees find fiery deliverance from their oppressors, a figurative call and response that seems to solve Gomes’ problem. Although he humorously claims, “Abstraction gives me vertigo,” metaphor allows one story, say a dazzling epic, never to lose sight of another, say a labor force in turmoil. With that, he’s ready to tell his story.
The only direct lift from One Thousand and One Nights is the framing tale of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) in old Baghdad. As in the book, she’s the latest wife to a fearsome Bluebeard whose murderous intentions toward her are only stayed by her spellbinding stories each night. Instead of entrancing her husband with tales of Ali Baba and Aladdin, Scheherazade is protected only by the boundless absurdity and disappointment of the Portuguese people, factual and fictional alike.
Kids in love, disaffected voters, neighbours brought together by a stray dog, and more become tiles in a mosaic of jinxing genies, talking trees, and careless kings. It’s intoxicating, swirling from bawdy farce to slow western to transcendent musical through an ocean of indelible imagery: a Christmas tree and a crescent moon against a deep sapphire sky, a pan across an array of world leaders’ incorrigible boners, a dog playing with its ghost, a sunken Scheherazade, the Iberian peninsula at the center of a cluster of planets.
The quintessential tale is “The Tears of the Judge.” It’s the trial of a woman who sold some of her landlord’s property to pay off her son’s wife, who charges the landlord with crank calling ambulances, and on and on until the crime under discussion is so far removed from the original theft that you forget how we got there. The wild goose chase even leads to a cow who tells the story of a tree that has been wrongfully stripped.
It’s an absurd, impassioned set of nested stories, the recurring theme of which is economic exploitation, to the point of eventually calling out Portugal’s Golden Visa program: the government courting wealthy foreigners at the expense of its own working class. Except for a flashback to the tree, which can talk well enough but can’t transport itself to the courthouse, the story never leaves the Greek amphitheater where the trial takes place. Thus Gomes emphasizes the storytelling over the stories.
There are all kinds of elusive little vignettes nestled in the cracks between the main attractions. The movie is less a nesting doll than a tree, or maybe a hydra. Bookending the trial are peculiar glimpses of the judge’s daughter’s home life. In the first, the daughter gets out of bed and, still in the buff, begins baking a cake for the man who took her virginity. In the second, a servant has taken over, and she’s also naked except for an apron. There’s no narrative reason she’s nude, but one meaning is clear: it illustrates the interchangeability of workers. Another head-scratcher is a single sequence set at an old fortress wherein a young scout falls from a rope bridge that has nothing to do with the larger story it’s in. The puzzle is part of the fun.
It can also be maddening. Arabian Nights is funny but dry, surprising but opaque, and resolute in its refusal to show, not tell. At one point in production, the movie reached nine hours, approximately a third of which was dedicated to a nearly dialogue-free birdsong tournament. That’s not to say it would have been a meditative passage. It’s not a silly-serious slant on Apichatpong Weerasethakul, although his regular DP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, shot most of Arabian Nights. The stories of the finch fetchers are told in dollops of on-screen text, a paragraph at a time, expositing all kinds of information: the birders’ personal histories, their approaches to competition, the government housing that unites them, the music of the chaffinch, the history of the tournament. There’s no voice-over — even the Portuguese audience would have to read. Although Gomes’ first feature, The Face You Deserve, has some storybook intertitles to guide its reimagined Snow White, the unnarrated writing, as in“The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches,” is new. Gomes calls it “the film as graphic novel.”
Part of the challenge in the graphic novel passages is that what we’re reading often diverges from what we’re seeing. Sometimes the writing describes the scene, as in a description of the chaffinch’s song: a three-part melody that flows from an opening whistle through an extended trill to a climactic stroke. More often than not, the text acts as a footnote, conveying extra information about the people we’re watching. It can make you cross-eyed. But there’s nothing superfluous about it. The weight of the passage lies in the accumulation, progression, and collision of these people’s stories.
Another passage, “Hot Forest,” takes place entirely at a police parade while an unseen Chinese migrant worker narrates her time in Portugal, where she’s greeted with manipulation, suspicion, and ignorance. It’s somewhat impressionistic: the video shows a general mass of unidentified people moving in real-time, while the audio consists of one woman’s personal history. The contrast — the individual vs. the group (specifically, an unprotected worker vs a labor union), outsiderhood vs. insiderhood, history vs. presence — is part of the point. “Hot Forest” ends with the suggestion that life is a “succession of pairing opposites.”
Midway through the final volume of Arabian Nights, Gomes reappears as a servant tasked with returning Scheherazade to the palace so she can continue her stories. He’s entered his fiction to keep it on track, like an agent of The Matrix. A countdown to something plays over his scene, and the moment becomes a wonderful pile-up of meta layers that has to get ironed out so the movie can proceed. Meanwhile, in a pivotal long take from a camera mounted on a Ferris wheel gondola, Scheherazade remembers why we tell stories: to survive. Arabian Nights is a testament to that ideal, an extravagant panorama of irrepressible Portuguese creating something untamable together. An age of destructive austerity meets its paired opposite.