Near the beginning of The Restless One, the first volume of Arabian Nights, director Miguel Gomes literally attempts to flee his own film, sprinting away from his writer’s block as his crew chases helplessly behind him. Faced with the reality of Portugal’s current economic situation and national malaise, he can’t conceive of how to piece together a film from the stories he hears on the streets about topics ranging from unemployment to a plague of honeybee-killing wasps. Eventually, a film erupts from Gomes’s own desperation, first in the realization of his stress to create in the form of literal execution for his failure to work, then in the tales he begins to spin to stay his sentence.
This conceit clearly derives from the work of literature that gives the trilogy its collective name, and sure enough, Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) abruptly appears and replaces the director as the principal storytelling avatar. In so doing, the director swaps meta-nonfiction for increasingly elaborate fantasia, as each tale finds unorthodox metaphors to express concerns about Portugal’s present condition. And though the individual tales share little with each other besides Portuguese settings and social commentary, each volume gradually reveals a distinctive approach to its assembled tales.
The Restless One, for example, is the most broadly satiric of the three films. One story features a belligerently loud rooster who infuriates a neighborhood into suing its owner, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the bird only crows as a warning of imminent catastrophe. An animal also centralizes the allegory of “The Swim of the Magnificents,” in this case a bloated whale carcass that gradually swells to burst on a beach where the unemployed and formerly middle class gather for a cathartic swim. The most upfront of the stories, though, concerns a group of oligarchical power brokers who suddenly lose interest in figuratively screwing the country when a sorcerer bestows them all with permanent erections so they can literally screw something else. The joke is an obvious one, albeit amusing, but Gomes takes it a step further when the men eventually grow bored of their virility and return to predatory economics out of sheer boredom and chafing.
Meanwhile, the second volume, The Desolate One, swaps the casual humor of the first for extended formal plays that build on the extreme aesthetic control the director showed with Tabu. This is most readily glimpsed in “The Tears of the Judge,” a tour de force that begins with a cow theft being adjudicated in a courtroom situated on the stage of an amphitheater. As the judge (Luísa Cruz) attempts to get to the bottom of the case, however, culpability continues to expand as more and more people, both those called to the stand and simply those gathered to witness the proceedings, admit to crimes of their own.
Gomes uses little more than clever blocking to create numerous visual gags, like the talking cow resting regally in the background behind the judge, its frozen expression no more impassive than the judge’s as she listens with increasing frustration to all of society implicate itself in intersecting, cause-and-effect crimes. The moral of the tale is one of the clearest of the entire trilogy, but the aesthetic brio in managing to make an established space feel ever-expanding marks it as perhaps the director’s greatest sequence to date.
If the second film slightly prioritizes formal rigor over satirical directness, The Enchanted One fully gives way to Gomes’s sense of experimentation. Its tales are significantly longer, leaving only two proper stories across a two-hour runtime. Nonetheless, the director makes up for the reduction in the number of clearly segmented stories by populating both of the tales with numerous diversions of their own. The 80-minute “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” begins as perhaps the most straightforward of the tales, with its simple narrative of bird keepers capturing and taming birds to be judged in a singing competition, only for Gomes to upend the docu-dramatic images with large text blurbs of Scheherazade’s unheard narration, which explains everything from the nature of finches to various tidbits of Portugal’s political history. The meticulousness of Gomes’s visual study of the bird keepers is hilariously undermined by these textual intrusions, though the information also opens new interpretations of ostensibly matter-of-fact footage.
Before that story, Scheherazade herself gets involved in a tale or two, whisked away from her husband by a lothario (Carlotto Cotta) and thrust into a world that she can actually touch, not one she simply invents. Gomes tops even Tabu’s extended nod to the silent era with a plethora of classical devices like irises and superimpositions that give the sequence an arcane feeling. Scheherazade’s sudden involvement in the living world also helps to tie the trilogy back to Gomes’s stress over telling meaningful stories. Like Scheherazade, he spins his yarns as a distraction for his safety, but one could also read Arabian Nights as a testament to the capability of stories and even the airing of grievances to sidetrack people from taking necessary action. The final installment of the trilogy shows Gomes working his way back to the real world after disappearing from it for hours, only to find that he can be just as experimental and fanciful as he was in the trilogy’s most abstract moments.
Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom brings the same florid realism to Miguel Gomes’s films as he does to his collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Kino’s Blu-ray beautifully captures the tactile 16mm grain that infuses the trilogy’s rich colors. Even the least adorned compositions pop with the colors of costumes and backgrounds, which look vivid even in the most dilapidated and worn condition. Sound is equally impressive, reflecting an immersive use of background noise; in particular, the cawing of the rooster and the finches in volumes one and three, respectively, reaches an ear-splitting, deliberately unbearable decibel level usually reserved for blockbuster explosions.
A conversation with Gomes, recorded at the New York Film Festival, shows the director in an alternately direct and rambling mode redolent of his filmmaking approach. Also included is the director’s outstanding Redemption, a remarkably dense half-hour film that uses archival footage and recited letters to craft a narrative of personal and political dissociation from one’s past. As much as the six-hour film it accompanies, it’s a summary of Gomes’s aesthetic and thematic ambitions. Finally, the disc comes with a trailer and a booklet with an informative essay by Dennis Lim, though more amusing are the reproductions of the director’s production diary, which clearly express the filmmaker’s stress over the project, but also a sense of humor that can be seen in the finished product.
Miguel Gomes’s baffling, entrancing magnum opus is one of the singular works of the decade to date, and Kino’s excellent Blu-ray belongs in any cinephile’s collection.