*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
The Restless One, the first of three volumes that comprise Miguel Gomes’ ambitious six-hour long omnibus Arabian Nights, begins at a shipyard in Viana do Castelo, Portugal. The decaying infrastructure of the port and the frank, solemn tenor of the narrators’ voices as they describe the decline of the shipyard convey the gloomy mood of a country that has fallen victim to economic misery. The sense of aimlessness and desperation is palpably captured in extreme long shots that capture hundreds of men wandering around the harbor.
Of course, nothing can prepare the audience for what turn the man behind films like Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu might take and, true to form, Gomes subverts the expectations set by the opening few minutes by breaking down the fourth wall and entering his film. The fictional Gomes is a director on the run, and is eventually punished for the extravagance and reverie of his filmic ambitions in a country where strict economic pressures are imposed. This hilarious storytelling detour shows a level of self-awareness that runs through the entire Arabian Night opus. Gomes’s wildest, most auspicious and gloriously messy film to date borrows the structure of the eponymous Middle Eastern collection of folkloric tales, but appropriated to modern Portugal under the government’s extreme austerity measures.
Commercial requirements have forced the film to be marketed as a trilogy—a fate that the film’s director doesn’t necessarily view as a hindrance—but the coherence in the structure of Arabian Nights only becomes clear over the course of the three films. Each volume can be studied as a separate entity and because of the episodic nature of the narrative each feels like a self-contained feature. But it is in conjunction with one another that the films reveal their thematic resonance and stylistic grandeur. The Restless One provides the underlying context of Portugal’s financial crisis and introduces us to Princess Scheherazade, the Persian wife of King Shahryar, who narrated stories to her husband over one thousand and one nights. The framing device and the poverty—economic, moral, and, consequently, emotional—felt in Portugal today establishes the audience’s grasp on the film’s continuously varying perspectives and tonal shifts.
In Scheherazade’s first tale, The Men with Hard-ons, Gomes farcically criticizes the political corruption that has led to economic disparity in Portugal. During a meeting between Portuguese ministers, European politicians, and a banker, the men are given a potion by an African magician that gives them powerful and lasting boners. The metaphor for greed among the elite is evident. That the sequence’s blunt satire is so lacking in subtlety is further emphasized as the film progresses, but Gomes’s capability to draw in the audience to stories that are individually so magnetic is such that the tonal shifts feel seamless.
The final chapter in this volume, The Swim of the Magnificents, returns the film to the form of docu-fiction again. Structured around three interviews with men and women who have lost their jobs, the conversations are raw, confrontational and painfully heartfelt. Gomes finds the depth of agony amongst his people and observantly studies the drastic effects of poverty on relationships and mental health. But the chapter, and consequently the volume, ends with a celebratory ritual—a coming together of downtrodden people on a beach for a collective moment of festivities. It’s a spiritual experience that transcends material concerns and a cinematic closure that is quite fitting. The moment of respite from the troubles of the real world is fleeting, only until Scheherazade returns with another tale.