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Arabian Nights (4 stars)

Giddy, shape-shifting and eccentric three-parter from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes

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Arabian Nights

How does any European filmmaker confront the age of austerity? In righteous fury, bitter despair, or weary melancholy? Tabu director Miguel Gomes tries to address the impact on Portugal with a little of everything in his sprawling, wildly inventive, six-hour, three-part extravaganza that is inspired by, but not directly adapted from, One Thousand and One Nights.

A stunning mixture of social realism and fantasy, documentary and satire, folklore and ethnography, it also seems to take inspiration from Chaucer and the Bible, and carries echoes of Buñuel and Jodorowsky, Charlie Kaufman and Agnès Varda whilst remaining completely and totally its own special creation.

The first volume (subtitled The Restless One) very much sets the tone as Gomes is shown to be understandably overwhelmed by the responsibility of undertaking such an extravagant venture at the very moment society is crumbling around him. Directing films is declared to be a rare privilege that he enjoys, but the Kaufman vibe comes as we watch him running in the opposite direction from a bewildered crew.

The film almost appears to develop organically as Gomes muses on the decline of traditional industries in Portugal, the burden of debt and the poverty that has been visited on every citizen. Individual testimony tells of bankruptcy, repossession and shattered dreams. So many of the documentary-style elements resonate from the way employment provides a form of validation in many lives, to the cuts in widows’ pensions and the fallacy of a propagandistic statement that we are all in this together.

Grim economic reality is matched by flights of fancy as Gomes allows his storytelling imagination to soar, echoing One Thousand and One Nights’ Scheherazade and her nightly task of staving off death by devising wondrous, cliffhanging tales that might beguile a king. Gomes wheels on cunning wasps, exploding whales and a bothersome talking cockerel who becomes a candidate in municipal elections.

Storytelling becomes a more dominant force in Volume 2 (The Desolate One) as we discover how mass murderer Simão ‘Without Bowels’ (Chico Chapas) becomes a rural folk hero, and follow a stern magistrate (Luísa Cruz) as she presides over an al fresco courtroom and a succession of absurdist cases – involving everything from stolen cows and a genie, to mail-order brides and a depressed olive tree.

Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) moves to centre stage in the concluding volume of the trilogy (The Enchanted One), with tales of a robber called Elvis and Paddleman (Carloto Cotta) who has fathered 200 children. ‘The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches’ follows unemployed men who train chaffinches for birdsong competitions, and the amount of time devoted to this story means that the languid, dawdling third volume is the one that most readily tests the patience.

There is also some sense of dissatisfaction in the discovery that Gomes has no clear end in sight, or conclusion that will draw all these disparate elements together. You only assume this is deliberate, as the economic recession and age of austerity equally seem to be without end.

As a whole, Arabian Nights is a giddy, shape-shifting, unapologetically eccentric delight marbled with moments of beauty and heartache and set to a suitably eclectic soundtrack that stretches from Rimsky-Korsakov to Lionel Richie. Funny, exhausting, polemical and poetic, it is a joyous assertion of Gomes’ belief that storytelling serves as an escape from reality, and a way to confront and transcend even the most difficult of times.

Arabian Nights: Volume 1 – The Restless One ●●●●
Arabian Nights: Volume 2 – The Desolate One ●●●●
Arabian Nights: Volume 3 – The Enchanted One ●●●

Limited release from Fri 22 Apr, Fri 29 Apr and Fri 6 May.

Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • Portugal
  • 125 min
  • Directed by: Miguel Gomes
  • Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Miguel Gomes, Maria Rueff
  • UK release: 22 April 2016

The first of a sprawling, wildly inventive trilogy in which director Gomes confronts the age of austerity; director Gomes plays himself as a bumbling, Charlie Kaufman-esque figure overwhelmed by the task he has set himself, until he allows his storytelling imagination to soar.

Arabian Nights Volume 2: The Desolate One

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • Portgual
  • 131 min
  • Directed by: Miguel Gomes
  • Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Chico Chapas, Luísa Cruz
  • UK release: 29 April 2016

In the second part of Gomes' sprawling, wildly inventive trilogy, mass murderer Simão (Chapas) becomes a folk hero and a magistrate (Cruz) presides over a succession of absurdist cases.

Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One

  • 3 stars
  • 2015
  • Portugal
  • 125 min
  • Directed by: Miguel Gomes
  • Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Américo Silva, Amar Bounachada
  • UK release: 6 May 2016

Scheherazade (Alfaiate) moves to centre stage in the concluding part of Gomes' sprawling, wildly inventive trilogy. An inability to bring the story to a proper end makes this the most trying episode, but as a whole, the trilogy is a giddy, shape-shifting, unapologetically eccentric delight marbled with moments of beauty…

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