Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy is a sprawling, shoot-for-the-moon patchwork of virtually every genre and film convention one can imagine, fusing documentary, comedy, fantasy, vérité, parable, and first-person confessional together under the ambition of mounting a non-traditional, free-form adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. Gomes derives his creative energy from contrast, from startling juxtaposition of tones, and the comingling of genres mirrors the unlikely union between the source material and the filmmaker’s real subject: Portugal, and the austerity measures imposed on it by the European Central Bank and others during the present financial crisis. Gomes isn’t subtle on this point, as text appears on the screen in each of the three volumes to remind us that the stories included are real tales of Portugal in the face of the government’s social cost-cutting measures, which has spectacularly failed to rejuvenate its economy, leaving more and more people literally and spiritually stranded.
Arabian Nights is fastidiously structured. Too fastidiously. Gomes lands his inarguable leftist point and continues to land it over and over for the course of six hours. The low point is a 45-minute scene in the second volume in which Portugal is metaphorically put on trial for its crimes in a sequence of escalating absurdity that sputters out from obviousness and convolution long before Gomes has tired of it. Interestingly, Volume 1, The Restless One is the most free-spirited, surprising, and playful of the films, which is notable because one might logically assume the first part of a long work to be the most burdened by the obligations of planting seeds—whether structural, narrative, or ideological—for the other installments. Perhaps the first film works best because Gomes’s studied whimsicality has yet to exhaust itself as a roundabout form of sermonizing.
The Restless One sets up a series of nesting narratives that will span the trilogy. Gomes appears on screen as himself, despairing over Portugal’s economic downturn, determined to make a progressive, realist film. But Gomes would also like to make a film full of “seductive stories,” including the sort of wonderments that presumably abound in good populist entertainments. The long prologue suggests a documentary, contrasting the massive layoffs at the shipyards in Viana do Castelo with the local firemen’s efforts to kill the invasive hornets that are imperiling the honey bees. Gomes says that he isn’t sure how these stories intersect or complement one another because he’s poor at abstract thought, but he’s being disingenuous: The shipyards offer us a tangible example of the proletariat repression wrought by the austerity measures, while the hornets are a clear, contemptuous metaphor for the invasion of Portugal by various European financial institutions.
Eventually, Gomes and his film crew are captured by presumed government operatives, buried up to their necks in the sand of a nearby beach. At this point, the filmmaker offers to satiate his captors with fantastic stories, meaning that he’s presumably giving up on his social consciousness to save his own neck. The stories he tells the operatives comprise the rest of the trilogy, embodying a premise in which Gomes must imbed his outrage within fables spun from One Thousand and One Nights, bridging the two types of storytelling he says he wishes to practice. We then meet the legendary storyteller Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), a beautiful woman in ancient Baghdad who, herself, must tell stories to impress her husband, a king with a penchant for killing his wives, which has inspired all the gorgeous women to flee to an island, where they help Scheherazade concoct the tales she spins. Then, we enter yet another nest: of the stories Scheherazade creates, in which she often appears hidden as other characters, which merge ancient Arabian culture with that of contemporary Portugal, frequently involving stories within stories themselves. Storytelling, as salve, as method of evasion, as weapon of freedom, is a major theme of Arabian Nights. And every story pertains to the oppression of the vast population by a small party of villains.
The premise requires that the fantastical exist evocatively side by side with the quotidian, and Gomes, particularly with his extraordinary landscapes, is up to that task. The Restless One has imagery that often rivals the director’s Tabu for its sense of primordial majesty. The shipyards in the beginning of the film are often framed in long, horizontal shots that reveal the minute details of the people inhabiting them, whether they’re working the docks or the ships, or protesting or celebrating a vessel’s departure. Gomes’s political point, highlighting a country in turmoil, is never more simultaneously explicit and mysterious, or dramatic, than when his camera trains on the hornet’s nests as they’re burned out of trees at night, their ashes collapsing to the ground, resembling falling, fiery stars. An arson subplot later parallels the hornet narrative, and the burnt-out portions of the country are shown to exist as a haunting ash-land—yet another symbol for what’s happening to Portugal.
In The Restless One, Gomes’s formal talents, which include a flair for close-ups of elegantly smooth or weathered faces, transcend his soft spot for the didactic. The best story is the (comparatively) most conventional, following a group of unemployed people who assemble for a community swim organized by a recent divorcée. When the people finally storm the beach for the swim, after several startling Jonah-esque visions of whales swallowing people, or of whales exploding on the beach, Gomes drains the scene of all sound. It’s the greatest effect in the entire trilogy, emphasizing both the dignity and the terror of these stranded people in equal measure, according them a sort of privacy that ironically reveals them fully to us. Arabian Nights is exhaustingly indulgent and self-righteous, but there are pearls scattered about within it that reveal what Gomes is wrestling with himself to create: a document that bridges protest and social portraiture together with wild flights of poetically transporting empathy.