Miguel Gomes’ ambitious six hour-plus satirical satire of history, modern-day politics and surrealism is certainly something to talk about. Except that’s all it does: talk.
Kicking off the trilogy, which was filmed back-to-back on location, is Volume 1 – The Restless One. We’re introduced to director Miguel Gomes attempting to barter his way out of being buried alive, following a ravaging ennui borne from a desire to portray the struggles of his native Portugal during a particularly recent, and particularly harsh, political regime. The director bursts at the seams with metaphor, and only six hours at the very least would be enough to get near the amount of expression he’s aiming for. And thusly, his art wantonly spills over into three feature-length instalments of ideologically articulate expression – yet despite their outward epic nature, each individual film points inward; the only scope here is in the characters’ memories, and the specific perceptions of time that informs them. Split into distinctly separate stories, the first of the films – The Restless One – puts humour upfront; Gomes’ rich tapestry of actors have world-class comic timing, bringing the surrealism at each tale’s heart to the fore and giving it a human, fallible dimension. And good thing too; each of The Restless One’s set-ups rely almost solely on political allegory to hit home, and while Gomes’ articulations are often eloquent and informative, there are no characters – or even a basic emotional throughline – to feel invested in not just for the duration of the Restless Ones, but for Volumes 2 and 3. This is Arabian Nights’ most glaring problem: giving us much to think about, and not enough to care.
Perhaps it’s Gomes’ predilection for overcooking subtext until it eventually becomes text. For periods, this is actually a boon to the film; during the standout sequence of all three movies, Volume 2 – The Desolate One’s midpoint scene is set in a semi-apocalyptic, magic-realist court hearing (that comes across as an elaborate stage play), as a number of criminals are revealed to the judge – and not just the ones originally accused. As the court room / amphitheatre descends into a shit-slinging contest, the intent of Arabian Nights is worn on its sleeve: the societal tumble-dryer Portugal went through is put on full display, and how each one of its inhabitants – either mythical, or based on real life – is affected in some way by the fallout. At least here, we’re let into exactly what Arabian Nights is attempting to achieve. But most other sequences, especially those in Volume 3 – The Enchanted One, are too busy wrapping every moment in modern-world context, that making any semblance of compelling story is made near-impossible. It’s like trying to look through a frosted window: there’s movement on the other side, but its intricately detailed shell hides it.
This reviewer has to admit that he wasn’t much of a fan of Gomes’ critically lauded 2012 film Tabu, either; if that movie worked wonders for you, then there’s every chance Arabian Nights will do the same, as both revel in the director’s trademark blend of social-magic-realism. And there’s not much point in trying to cross-collate adaptational similarities in this work and the original One Thousand and One Nights, for a title card at the beginning of each Volume warns that the films instead are more occupied with ‘drawing on its structure’ than literal dot-to-dot cinematic translation. Gomes clearly wants his opus to be judged on its own merits, as should every film. But Arabian Nights exists so far outside such critical isolation, in regards to both other creative work and real-world strife, that it fails to pull itself together into a discernible form. As each movie focuses single-mindedly on the identities of its nation, its people, its politicians, it struggles to create one for itself.
Arabian Nights: Volume 1 and 2 are available now on MUBI, with Volume 3 becoming available on May 29.