CAPSULE: ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015)

Volume 1 – the Restless One

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Gomes

FEATURING: Crista Alfaiate, Miguel Gomes

PLOT: Vignettes of the lives and circumstances of various “everyman” Portuguese citizens are spliced together in the form of a series of tales à la Arabian Nights.

Still from Arabian Nights Vol 1: The Restless One (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an almost wholly documentary-style pastiche narrative, Arabian Nights is not so much weird as relentlessly tedious and preachy. A spark of the bizarre, when the director seemingly abandons his own movie, is slow to appear and is quickly snuffed out as the film-makers go on to sermonize the audience with tales of woe.

COMMENTS: Early in the movie a massive red flag pops up when the director admits that he suspects it impossible to make a movie about tales of wonder when he’s surrounded by the uncompromising dreariness of everyday life. Indeed, he does find it impossible. He takes one of the earliest examples of fantasy as a storytelling framework to convey a series of tales that delve into the personal costs borne by Portugal’s citizenry during the Euro crisis years of austerity (from August 2013 through July 2014, as explained by an inter-title that doubles as a disclaimer about the use of the Arabian Nights name). What follows is, well, both a grind and a bore.

I mentioned earlier that there was a tiny glimmer of something interesting occurring. While the director suffers his existential crisis (something that, like the movie, only truly springs into action after twenty five minutes of dockyard and hornet nest clips dubbed over with remarks about the collapse of the shipping and honey industries), he flees his own crew and tries to hide. He is found by unidentified militants who sentence him to death for his filmic recklessness. So now we have our storyteller neck-deep in sand, and the not-so-subtle allegories begin, sporting the titles “the Men with Hard-Ons,” “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” and finishing with the tripartite “Story of the Magnificents.” Each in turn becomes progressively less allegorical and increasingly polemical.

Having taken advantage of the dubious opportunity of enrolling in a “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience” seminar back in my long-distant college days, that “genre” was the first, and almost only, one that sprang to mind while watching Arabian Nights. In the vein of Soviet Socialist Realism, glorifying the common man, as well as that of Italian Neo-Realism, Arabian Nights eschews the traditional tools of (truly) cinematic storytelling in favor of capturing reality as closely as possible. While such a practice isn’t something I particularly enjoy, I don’t begrudge the fans of the genre their entertainment (or whatever word would describe the experience). However, it most certainly isn’t the way to make a weird movie.

Taking over two hours to convey its message of “austerity is unkind to the masses” (actually over six hours—there are two more installments that I am shying away from) using the same documentary/talking heads/ voiceover techniques throughout lends itself to whinging tedium. I wonder what Mr Gomes’ Iberian confrère, , might have done instead. Buñuel dabbled in documentary back in the 1930s with a short piece entitled Land Without Bread. In the space of twenty seven minutes, he not only raises the viewer’s awareness of the plight of grinding poverty in a backwards rural society, but also thoroughly tweaks the documentary genre’s nose. A modern take on Buñuel’s socially conscientious subversion might have been interesting; Gomes’ outing barely qualifies as a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opaque compendium of stories – like the ones Scheherazade told to stave off her own death – all responding in indirect ways to the miseries forced on Portugal by austerity, as if by a social-realist Buñuel with a bit of the novelist José Saramago’s existential musing; the same kind of absurdism and deadly serious political scepticism.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

One thought on “CAPSULE: ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015)”

  1. I didn’t like the movie either, though I didn’t hate it as much as Giles. To be fair to Gomes, he says he’s surprised the film attracted any attention or acclaim from outside of Portugal. It seems to presume a great deal of familiarity with Portuguese politics, which I confess I don’t share.

    It seems like Gomes is complaining the loudest about the IMF and the austerity policies, especially in that “hard-ons” segment, which is strange. Why not target the administration that got Portugal into this economic mess, rather than the one that’s trying to get it out? That’s like running up 100K on your credit card and then whining about bill collectors. But then again there could easily be references here I can’t see as a non-Portuguese.

    I am shocked and nonplussed at all of the positive ratings this movie has gotten—97% positive at Rotten Tomatoes! I know there is a certain block of critics, the “social conscience” crowd, who think all movies should be political and reward filmmakers for how leftist their film is rather than how accomplished or interesting it is. But are they powerful enough to move the needle on this one so much? I’m with Mike D’Angelo when he says “At this point I think it’s safe to conclude that the Venn diagram for Things That Interest Me and Things That Interest Miguel Gomes consists of two unjoined circles.” What are we missing about this movie that is causing so many to go ga-ga?

    But I do think it’s weirder than Giles gives it credit for. It does have a witchdoctor who gives men permanent erections and a talking rooster, after all.

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