A six-hour reflection on the financial crisis in Portugal, Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is an intelligent and visually arresting compendium of uneven tales.
Portugal Is Burningby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The follow-up to Miguel Gomes’ poetic discourse on Portuguese colonialism Tabu, Arabian Nights, we’re firmly told, isn’t based on the literary work, even if it takes its structure from it. And divided into three volumes The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One and into tales, such as The Men With Hard-ons, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire or Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ‘Without Bowels’, Gomes’ Arabian Nights is a feast of picaresque episodes set within a sumptuous framing story of Scheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) telling them to her unseen tyrannical and bloodthirsty husband. The six-hour-long film opens however with a hand-on-heart proclamation on the impossibility of filmmaking in Portugal without addressing the crisis. And as the prologue lingers on cranes in a now disused shipyard or as Miguel Gomes stages himself before the camera before running away in anguish, his eyes covered, Arabian Nights somewhat indulgently reveals a kaleidoscope of experience – from the opening, most political story of the country’s leaders selling the nation once the ecstasy is over to the final chapter which sees the ordinary people of Lisbon gearing up for a chaffinch singing competition. Inevitably, some stories work better than others. And while The Inebriating Chorus Of The Chaffinches offers an honest look at real people, it pushes patience beyond inebriation. As Mil e Uma Noites is at its most affecting though in its first-hand stories of unemployment and hardship in The Swim of the Magnificents and cleverest in The Tears of the Judge, when society is represented in miniature, as one judicial complaint segues into the next, revealing a universally sordid reality of petty crime and opportunism. The stories are interlinked, as the character from one tale crops up in the next or as Crista Alfaiate and Carloto Cotta take on different roles throughout Gomes’ storytelling saga. It’s unnecessarily long and resolutely auteurish, as Gomes refuses to explain his choice of stories, hiding behind a visual flair and a devil-may-care originality. But marrying politics and poetry, the Middle East and Europe as well as the past and the present, Arabian Nights makes for a curiously 21st century epic.
Arabian Nights is now showing at the London Film Festival