The Films of 2015: Arabian Nights

My Arabian Nights diary:

Night 1 (1/14/16) – Just returned from the first installment of Miguel Gomes’ sprawling Arabian Nights, which comprises three separate films and runs a total of six hours and twenty minutes.  I appreciated Gomes’ previous film Tabu as a striking and lyrical evocation of Portugal’s colonial legacy, so I was intrigued when I first heard about Arabian Nights.  I became even more intrigued when it placed fifth in Film Comment’s critics’ poll of the best films of the year (though it has been witheringly dismissed by such esteemed critics as Amy Taubin).  So it was with both curiosity and trepidation that I sat down with Volume 1.  The film is a panoramic view of modern-day Portugal set from 2013 to 2014, when a series of government-issued austerity measures left masses of people unemployed and impoverished, driving many of them to depression and suicide.  Gomes tells their stories using a mixture of documentary and narrative modes, serving up both with a healthy dose of Orientalist fantasy.  Mermaids and wizards rub elbows with bureaucrats and peasants; a willful rooster whose out-of-control crowing runs afoul of the local government becomes a cause celebre among the townspeople; and, in the film’s most amusing sequence, a group of economists are cursed with erections they can’t get rid of.  Not all of it works, but, like Scheherazade, Gomes gets his hooks in you and makes you curious to see (and hear) more.    

Night 2 (1/15/16) – Highlights of Volume 2 include a montage sequence enumerating the various residents of a high-rise apartment building and a lovely/sexy/funny two-minute scene, set to Nat King Cole’s “Perfidia” (a song that recurs in various forms throughout the trilogy), in which a woman calls her mother to tell her that she has just lost her virginity.  The other 120 minutes of Volume 2 are less exciting.  Inspired and intelligent though he may be, Gomes doesn’t really have the talent to hold an audience’s attention for six hours.  A scene set in an open-air courtroom where crimes, witnesses, and testimonials seem to multiply ad infinitum feels belabored; the story of a stray dog and his series of adoptive owners is marginally more interesting, but it too drags.  Even though the conceit of Arabian Nights requires that it span a large period of time, I can’t help but feel that the film would benefit from condensing—one night’s worth of tales instead of three.

Night 3 (1/16/16) – One of the biggest unanswered questions that remains at the end of Arabian Nights is why?  Why use the tropes of Middle Eastern folklore to tell a story about contemporary Portugal?  Because the connection between the two feels so tenuous, Gomes’ invocation of Scheherazade and Baghdad, genies and camels, comes off looking like an unjustifiable act of cultural appropriation.  That’s ironic, because the Scheherazade scenes—which dominate the first half of Volume 3—are some of the most sensuously beautiful in the trilogy.  In the end, Arabian Nights has revealed itself to be an interesting failure: wildly uneven and often plodding, but with flashes of greatness.  Gomes’ use of music, for example, is exciting and eclectic; when the film comes to life, it’s often because of an unexpected musical cue layered over a seemingly incongruous image.  When Scheherazade herself takes a stab at covering “Perfidia,” belting out the song on a craggy hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the moment is so lush that we don’t really mind that nothing else is really happening.  The same can’t be said for most of the rest of the film.  

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