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Three films as one for our time

Dan Edwards: Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights Trilogy

Arabian Nights Trilogy Arabian Nights Trilogy
“We have just witnessed a major event in the history of cinema,” declared a friend as we emerged from an epic six-hour viewing of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (Mil e uma Noites) parts one, two and three. These kinds of on-the-spot hyperbolic judgements are always risky—anyone recall Pauline Kael’s declaration that Last Tango in Paris would be argued about “for as long as there are movies”? Yet my friend’s comment does say something about the impact Gomes’ trilogy had on many viewers at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year, conveying the sense that we had, at the very least, witnessed something special.

Arabian Nights pulls off the difficult feat of feeling timeless and yet definitively of its time. It is a work people will likely watch decades hence to glean what it was like to live through 2014–15 in a Europe enduring the harshest economic conditions since the Second World War, in a world facing a deeply uncertain future.

So what is Arabian Nights actually like? Comprising three feature-length films, each one highly episodic, it’s a work difficult to sum up in a few lines. It begins with a documentary that mixes observations about austerity-era striking Portuguese ship builders, a plague of introduced wasps and the director’s reflections on the impossibility of the task he has set himself. “You can’t make a militant film which forgets its militancy and soon escapes from reality,” he muses, before the film does exactly that, in a hilarious dramatised tale of a meeting between bland EU bureaucrats and Portugal’s leaders.

The bureaucrats demand ever greater austerity. The Portuguese say they have nothing left to cut. Eventually they all adjourn for a horse ride, on which they encounter a wizard who brandishes a cream capable of invigorating their long-dormant sex organs. Liberated from impotency and frustration, the group forget about their harsh measures and re-enter negotiations with a breathless new lease on life. Ambitious as Arabian Nights is, it is never without humour—later in the first feature, we see a cock put on trial for disturbing his neighbours with constant crowing.

Documentary and drama are interwoven throughout the trilogy, which loosely takes the structure of One Thousand and One Nights, in which a young woman, Scheherazade, weaves tales on a nightly basis for her bloodthirsty husband, King Shahryar, in order to stave off her own execution. As this premise suggests, for all the humour in these films there is an underlying anger and bitterness about the absurdity of Europe’s situation, as the continent lurches from one crisis to another with recurrent band-aid solutions.

Part two continues the stylistic mix, opening with the story of an aging but sexually rapacious outlaw living in the hills, quietly defiant of society’s mores. The next episode concerns a trial in an outdoor amphitheatre, in which life’s basic absurdity undermines any attempt to apply rational justice. Part two ends with a long Bressonian story of quiet desperation in high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Part three opens with Scheherazade attempting to escape her storytelling obligations, indulging in song, dance and a playful non-affair with a beautiful but stupid man on a sun-drenched, rocky island. From high fantasy we slip into a seemingly endless documentary about bird trappers. The subculture constitutes an intriguing community of men who train chaffinches to sing in order to engage in deadly serious competitions at a waste-ground beside a busy airport.

Arabian Nights Trilogy Arabian Nights Trilogy
Gomes gently leads us to believe the trappers’ story will culminate in one last, big picture statement about Europe’s situation, particularly during a diversionary tale about a Chinese girl having an affair with a policeman caught up in the ship builders’ strike introduced in the first feature. But the girl’s story soon expires, and we return once again to the utterly prosaic lives of the bird-trappers. Gomes defies expectations to the end.

There may be no sweeping conclusion here, but the implication is that life goes on, despite austerity, despite neo-liberal delusions, despite the apparent end of an age of prosperity. Europe, Gomes suggests, was never really contained in the high sounding rhetoric of Brussels and its self-serving bureaucratic machine. Europe exists, and has always existed, in the small-scale cultures that fall beneath the official radar, in local customs that play out in disused spaces, in ways of life that soldier on despite everything and in everyday stories that resist easy readings.

Much like the trappers’ passion for the songs they coax from their birds, Gomes has forged a film full of life, joyfulness and passion from the ruins of Portugal’s devastating experience of austerity. Across six hours of screen time, he weaves a rich tapestry that is part ancient epic, part Márquez-style magic realism, part Bulgakov-like absurdist satire, part Chris Marker-esque self-reflection and part… Miguel Gomes. And much else besides. Above all, the trilogy is a defiant harking back to a post-war era in which Europe led the world in producing challenging, provocative cinema.

Arabian Nights demands time and, at times, patience. A major event in the history of cinema? That’s a judgement best left to the future. Without doubt, though, Arabian Nights is a trio of films for our era, and a reconfirmation of the big screen’s enduring artistic importance.

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; Volume 3, The Enchanted One; director Miguel Gomes, writers Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro; Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland; 2015; Melbourne International Film Festival, 30 July–16 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 21

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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