The biggest and most ambitious movie at
Cannes this year isn’t an expensive blockbuster ("Mad Max: Fury Road") or a conceptually demanding animated film ("Inside Out"). It’s “Arabian Nights,” a six-hour, three-part project, variously described as a trilogy and as just one movie, shot
entirely on film and inspired very, very loosely by the classic collection of fairy tales (also known as “1001 Nights.")
The film is the latest from Portuguese helmer Miguel Gomes, who came to the attention of cinephiles with docudrama hybrid “Our Beloved Month Of August,” and
then more prominently with “Tabu,” the widely acclaimed, wildly original black-and-white Murnau homage released in 2012. I loved the latter, and have been
dying to see what Gomes would get up to next, and the answer doesn’t disappoint: it’s as successful as it is ambitious, and it’s one of the most remarkable,
distinctive, and magical films of the festival so far.
As a disclaimer reveals at the start of each film (we saw each part, which are subtitled “The Restless One,” “The Desolate One,” and “The Enchanted One,”
each separated by a couple of days), the trio of movies borrows the structure of “Arabian Nights,” and the structure of being narrated by Scheherazade (Crista
Alfaiate), but none of the actual tales directly. Instead, Gomes uses the conceit to paint a sort of state of his nation, focusing in particular in the
country’s recent economic crisis — Portugal was hit by the collapse worse than most, with a rise in unemployment surpassed only by Greece, and it has struggled
to pull out of the tailspin ever since.
After an initial section featuring Gomes himself, and his fears about the project (in an early example of the film’s disarming sense of humor, he’s seen
running away from the film crew at one point), we’re then given ten distinct segments, each of which is supposedly a tale told by Scheherazade to the King to
stave off her execution.
These include "The Men With Hard-Ons" (pro-austerity European politicians are gifted permanent erections by a wizard), "The Swim Of The Magnificents" (a
docudrama hybrid involving a mass swim in a community stricken by joblessness), "Chronicle Of The Escape of Simao Without Bowels" (the “Bonnie &
Clyde”-style flight of an aged murderer), "The Owners Of Dixie" (about the passage of a pup between various financially stricken owners, a sure Palme D’og frontrunner), a segment focusing on the life and loves of Scheherazade herself, and "The Inebriating Chorus Of The Chaffinches," an epic
documentary (with some caveats attached) about a birdsong competition.
A diverse bunch then, but that’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Gomes’ work. For someone who’s become such a favorite with the hardcore cinephile
crowd, he’s always had a light, playful touch, switching form and genre, and those skills reach something of a peak here. “Arabian Nights” doesn’t feel like one
film or three (or even a television series, though that’s how it’ll be aired in some territories, apparently). It feels like a dozen, with only their
grand thematic link — and a few recurring actors, though only Alfaiate’s voice appears in all the segments — uniting them.
It’s not as immediately visually striking as “Tabu,” if only because it mostly abandons the high-contrast black-and-white, but it’s still stunning
looking. Apichatpong Weerasethakul regular Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shot the project, much of it on 16mm, and he’s a perfect fit, using mostly natural light to
give a grand, bright feel to the picture while adapting perfectly to Gomes’ formal restlessness.
It’s far from just the look of the film that changes up. Gomes’ natural mode is a return to ‘Month Of August’-style docudrama mix, but there’s Bunuelian
satire, lo-fi crime, Brechtian allegory, and high fantasy all in the mix. It’s dizzying stuff, and virtually
everything that Gomes tries his hand to works: it’s a film that’s moving, sad, exciting, fiery, and funny.
The humor is particularly welcome too, and for a challenging-sounding six-hour film(s) about the Portuguese economy, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Gomes continues
the minor festival themes of arthouse dick jokes in the opening segment, and almost every sequence has at least one big laugh in there, and sometimes
several, even if it’s about to make you cry simultaneously.
Indeed, Gomes has a near-perfect handle of tone, and if you ever think you know what to expect, you’ll soon find yourself mistaken — even the final
section, "The Inebriating Chorus of The Chaffinches," which for the most part is straight-up documentary, features an appearance by a wind genie at the end. As you approach the credits, you start to suspect that the filmmaker might be some kind of genie himself.
All of this is not to say that he forgets the reason he started the project (which was based on extensive research by a number of journalists; each segment is based loosely on a true story from Portugal in the last few years). The economic collapse weighs heavy on each segment, from the short-sighted, austerity-minded bureaucrats of the opener, and the warning-ignoring villagers of "The Story Of The Cockerel And The Fire to Dixie’s" owners, who can barely
support themselves, let alone a dog.
It’s effective, rigorous, and even rousing stuff (like when Gomes includes footage of real-life protests against the Portuguese government), and hometown
audiences might get the most of it, but it’s all pretty universal, and it’s not like the director is single-minded in his themes anyway. For all the film’s
politics, "Arabian Nights" can also be whimsical, swooningly romantic, inspiring, fascinating, or deeply sad.
In terms of the volumes, the second might be my favorite. It’s the most substantial and diverse, even if it doesn’t have the wow factor of the opening
part. If I had a complaint, it’s that the third volume feels a little like deleted scenes. Neither the Scheherazade section nor ‘Chaffinches’ play
immediately into the macro-theme, and the latter in particular, by far the longest of the segments, stands out somewhat from the rest of the film, in part
because it’s such a stylistic break in embracing a kind of slow-cinema documentary.
But it’s a reservation that could well evaporate on further viewings, and taken on its own, it’s a still an entirely superb film. Gomes set his sights
incredibly high for his new film, and he somehow pulled it off. Lord knows what he’ll try next, but on this evidence, it’s sure to be a storming success.
Volume 1: [A]
Volume 2: [A]
Volume 3: [B+]