A scathing critique that comes across as heart-warming and sweet; the structure of a fable to explain the present; poor people suffering hardship depicted with beauty and dignity: Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is quite special. Is it one film or three? Is it documentary or fiction? If it’s hard to categorise, I also find it hard to review: I simply find myself unable to remember, much less describe and evaluate, six and half hours of film on the basis of one viewing. So I leave you with a sketch, hopefully with reasons to see a great film, one that Richard Brody has rightly praised for re-inventing political cinema.
At the beginning of the first episode, ‘The Restless One’, Gomes begins to make a version of ‘1001 Nights’ but has an epiphany: austerity measures in Portugal are so harsh and so inhuman that the project seems frivolous; why not send all his crew to collect stories about how citizens are living through these times and then use the structure of Arabian Nights as a means to encompass them all? After all, what’s at stake in the telling for Scheherezade is the same as for the citizens of Portugal: survival itself.
Of the first episode, I remember the fantastical judgment of the cockerel, where a rooster is put on trial for waking up the neighbours; the way a woman gives a man some chocolate for having helped her and so that it might sweeten his heart; the businessmen so excited to screw everyone out of everything they can’t get rid of their erections; the rituals, festivals, dances as well as the christening of the ships in the dockyards; there’s also that international (and symbolic) collective cold-water swim which ends the episode. But what I remember most is the footage of the dockworkers, left not only without a job but, perhaps more important, also without a way of life.
There’s a wonderful moment in Arabian Nights where one of the dockworkers, screwed out of a settlement by the government and fired by the company, says that he’s only 50, too young not to work. He’s got a sister in Switzerland and he could get a job there. But if he has to go to another country to work, he’ll sell his house, leave Portugal and never return. If he can’t be allowed to subsist in his own country, he also won’t be extorted out of money by what he sees as a mafiosi alliance of big business and government. It’s angry and moving and made me think we’re probably all in the process of becoming 21st century equivalents of Corleone peasants.
Volume 2 is called ‘The Desolate One’, and begins with the story of ‘Simon Without Bowls’, who’s killed his wife, daughter and two other women. He’s hiding out in the countryside, careful of behaving honourably according to his code, and being supported by the populace for doing so. In fact he becomes a hero. The other story starts with a young woman, just having had sex for the first time, who calls her Mom for advice. Her Mom turns out to be a judge and we get to see not only the advice she gives her daughter but the reasoning behind her judgments on several of the stories we hear, which as each case develops, turns out to implicate someone from a higher and higher class. The final episode is about a dog called Dixie who passes on from owner to owner, each one telling a story of malaise and hardship.
Tom Bond, writing in Little White Lies, finds the story of the judge to be the most intriguing:
‘An evening trial begins in an amphitheatre, with a mother and her son accused of selling the contents of their rented flat. The case seems straightforward enough, but with the judge poised to deliver a sentence, a third party takes the stand and complicates the issue. Like a farcical legal version of Spartacus, the sequence continues with victim after victim standing to deliver new evidence. Some of the perpetrators have committed their crimes because of greed (or, in a prime example of the film’s absurdism, a rogue genie), but most have done so because of poverty.
There’s the mother and son forced to sell their belongings to clear a debt; the deaf woman who acted as a go-between in the sale of some stolen cows because her ex refused to pay child support; and the man who stole her wallet because he couldn’t afford to eat. Gomes suggests that austerity and unemployment don’t just impoverish individuals, but risk creating a butterfly effect. When those too poor to pay their way find inadequate support from the state, the only option left for them is crime. Their victims are often equally impoverished, creating a situation where those struggling the most are pitted against each other’.
Together all of these stories tell a tale of survival and loneliness, of the present imbricated in the past, of the otherworldly or fantastical being more real than the real. It’s like a magical realist fable shot in documentary style.
Volume Three, ‘The Enchanted One’ focuses much more on Scheherezade but what I remember most vividly is what the stories of the Chaffinches, their trappers, owners trainers, tells us about the current state of Portugal. There’s also the morality tale of the young Chinese girl who fell in love with the Portuguese man and has her heart broken. The film sometimes meanders. It’s sometimes overly whimsical. But I dare you not to well up at various moments and be completely charmed by people’s imagination, inventiveness, pragmatism and kindness.
Part of the problem with writing criticism and perhaps with viewing is that we want everything to cohere, to be balanced and measured, to make sense, for each part to be necessary to the whole. And the thing with great art is that it sometimes spills over, it delights with incoherence, it might move us through its tangents, we might learn something because of the moments of narrative incoherence.
In the introduction to a special issue devoted to Arabian Nights, the editors of Little White Lies write: ‘Back in 2012, we awarded our annual film of the year prize to Tabu, a sweeping colonial love story featuring a melancholic crocodile by the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. His follow-up, the singular, whimsical and boldly romantic Arabian Nights, premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – and we haven’t been able to get it out of our minds since’. I feel the same.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is great art. Nowhere in cinema that I can remember have poor people in crises being treated with greater empathy, dignity and a kind of beauty. Nowhere that I can remember has such a relentlessly scathing critique come across as so charming, so inventive and so delightful in almost every way (encompassing melancholy and sadness). A humanist perspective and humour obviously buys a lot of leeway. We might get restless and desolate at moments whilst watching it but I at least ended up completely enchanted. It’s a folly and it’s a great film. It’s unique. It deserves to be more widely seen. I’m very grateful that the tenth edition of Flatpack brought it to Birmingham.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre as part of the Flatpack Festival