Few contemporary writer-directors seem as determined as Miguel Gomes is to challenge preconceptions about his capacities as a filmmaker. His 2004 film The Face You Deserve derives its title from a Portuguese saying that “Until you turn 30, you have the face God gave you. After that, you have the face you deserve.” Gomes’s films take the sentiment as something of a mantra, examining the lives of numerous, often silent characters enmeshed within Portuguese landscapes and culture in a film like 2008’s Our Beloved Month of August with cinema vérité-like precision. And in 2012’s Tabu, Gomes audaciously shoots in both black-and-white 35mm and 16mm to curiously, and somewhat indirectly, explore Portugal’s colonialist past in Africa.
Now, with Arabian Nights, Gomes examines Portugal’s current political and financial crisis through a series of segments inspired by The Thousand and One Nights. That may sound like heavy viewing, but Gomes imbues each film with an anarchic spirit that often locates the material’s unruly and sardonic potential, like in the second film, titled The Desolate One, where a judge is faced with an absurd string of revelations where nearly everyone attending the court is shown to be a victim of societal malfeasance. If Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights more fully explored the material’s sexual dimensions, Gomes’s iteration reflexively asks about the nature of cultural production from artistic, economic, and political perspectives.
Gomes spoke with me from this year’s New York Film Festival about the role of scatology in the trilogy, his frustrations with political passivity, and how The Enchanted One embraces a technique he terms “silent voiceover.”
If someone asked you what these films are about, how would you respond? Could it be answered briefly or would it require a longer explanation?
If I could answer briefly, I think I would make a short film. I tried to convince the people that put money on the film that it would be a portrait of my country, of Portugal, during one year, and that it would be, at the same time, a film about tales, like in Arabian Nights—a film with all of the amazing elements that you have in this delirious fiction form, which is Arabian Nights. I said that, and it worked, because I got a lot of money and finally I ended up with three films.
The film opens in the Viana De Castelo shipyard, but immediately following that, it focuses on you discussing your dilemmas as a filmmaker and offering what amounts to anticipated criticisms the film might encounter. I wonder if that was your idea doing that: to build in an initial, not defense, but a sense of what someone might say about your responsibilities to be either more of a documentarian or a fabulist.
When you’re playing a game, you have instructions—the rules of the game. Most of the time, cinema tries to hide the structure. For me, it’s important to share it with the viewer, to play the game together. We had always this [in mind], because we were working with things that we generally don’t associate—what’s happening in a country and especially in a moment when there’s a crisis. There are these moments that come from reality and it’s something we share as a society in general, and some of them are pretty much dramatic and, at the same time, I didn’t want to renounce the possibility of having this fictional, delirious world. This moment in the beginning, I think it’s like the instructions for the film, about how to the film and the viewer should make this trip together.
Thinking about your prior films, I’m interested in the on-screen text of The Enchanted One and the repeated line that says, “And then, Scheherazade fell silent.” It’s the quietest and most contemplative of these three films. Does this link it back to Tabu and an interest in silent-cinema aesthetics?
I think of this text over the images as silent voiceover. It’s like a paradox. At first we tried with Scheherazade telling the story, but for me it didn’t work. When I saw the text over the images and felt the silence without a voiceover, it gave me this sensation of something, yes, like Tabu. In Tabu, you were hearing the voiceover and get the dialogues, but here you get the dialogues only in your mind, the viewer’s mind, from reading. That was interesting to me.
In a recent interview, you said the original Arabian Nights tales were “completely scatological,” and you wanted to stay true to that in the spirit of these films. What does the scatological offer for you as a filmmaker and how does that speak to the current situation in Portugal?
I think I’m too pudic, too shy to really explore this scatological element like in the book. In the book, it’s quite intense. Not only scatology, but sometimes brutality. The book has everything. It has incest, but you also have that in the Bible. Ah, the epics. [laughs] What I was really into was this kind of extreme thing happening—the absurd, surrealistic side of things. Take, for instance, the sequence with the judge [from The Desolate One] that opens with the Earth and the three moons, and then you see a dick and then this woman with blood on her vagina. It’s an extremity that I never went into in my other films. For me, it’s really Arabian Nights. It’s more explicit, a little bit more violent, and a little bit more cruel, maybe. I think The Desolate One is one of the more cruel things that I’ve shot. But even if it’s cruel, I try not to be sadistic, which is a thing I feel sometimes in contemporary cinema, that the film has a kind of sadistic relationship to the viewer. This is a power relation that I don’t want to have with my films. And this is also why I’m really into showing the artificial side of the films. Not to pretend to be in reality, but by creating this unreal world, I think it gives more space to the viewer to accept the rules of this world. Not to pretend or think that this is reality. This is not reality. I think cinema should tell you things about reality and about our lives, but it shouldn’t appear to be a reality. It’s not life. It’s something that talks about life, but it’s not life.