Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One, like the chapters that precede and follow it, is the equivalent of director Miguel Gomes taking his creative hubris onto the art-film playground, locating the sandbox, and suggesting the sand be removed and replaced with feces, for no greater reason other than jolting the decorum for recess procedure. Gomes says in an interview with CinemaScope that he finds the Arabian Nights folktales to be “completely scatological,” but these segments, in their proclivities for distended muckraking and obtuse meaning, border on coprophilia. This is Gomes’s most abstruse film yet, even though its foundation is rooted in “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014.” However, those facts remain entirely off screen, sans a general assertion (via on screen text) that the nation’s people were “held hostage to a program of economic austerity,” resulting in widespread poverty amongst large portions of the population.
As a work of art, The Desolate One is entirely conceptual, imposing an overarching framework on its stories purely as an exercise. This is cinema as experimental math equation, with Gomes plus-ing the basic template of One Thousand and One Nights and Portugal’s financial crisis to equal, well, nothing concrete beyond scant, absurdist musings. The Desolate One contains roughly three tales, each of which so comprehensively fumbles for allegorical meaning that one may suspect the entire project is a put-on, meant simply as a petulant act of anti-narrative deconstruction.
The trilogy’s second volume begins with “The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ’Without Bowels,’” a half-hour sojourn with Simão, “a son of a bitch on the run” after murdering his wife, daughter, and two other women—events that Gomes can’t be bothered to address or depict except through the narration of Scheherazade, whose actual appearance is omitted from this film and reserved for the opening of Volume 1, The Restless One and the bulk of Volume 3, The Enchanted One. Gomes lingers with Simão as he moves throughout the Portuguese countryside, imagines himself with prostitutes, and being fed a grand meal from an open flame, as crickets chirp nearby. In part, the segment seems indebted to Badlands, given the comparable scenario and ensuing manhunt, but Gomes deletes all avenues for commentary or humor by simply placing Simão within a desert landscape, sometimes sitting silently, others asleep, with a rifle nearby.
Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom uses mostly natural light to striking effect, especially when Scheherazade explains that Simão’s evil “is only a severe tendency of selfishness,” a claim made while children cartwheel in front of Simão as he smokes disinterestedly in the background. Gomes’s capacity for locating vivacity within banal, transitory moments is undeniable; less clear, however, is what ends these moments seek. Do they have to service unity in order to be effective? That question motivates much of Gomes’s procedure, but his vision lacks an intensive interest in really getting philosophical with it, and yields little with regard to Portugal’s economic ruins.
An exception, and best among the three, is the second segment, “The Tears of the Judge.” Inside an amphitheater, a crowd sits before a judge (Luísa Cruz) who steadily realizes that nearly everyone in attendance, from a landlord to a deaf woman, and finally to a cow, are linked to the case at hand and have been wronged, or committed an offense, of some kind. As a microcosmic mockery of corruption, the string of revelations is amusing and sharp, particularly once a band of thieves, who speak in shrill, melodic voices, admit to swindling others as a means to sustain their indulgent lifestyles. Yet even here, the cumulative effect remains somewhat meager and imprecise. Fed up and uncertain of how to proceed, the judge states: “This is making my head spin and I want to throw up.” The proclamation reduces the revelations to their most outward absurdities, as does a Chinese consulate saying his client enjoyed his trip in Portugal and “recommended it on TripAdvisor.” With this inexplicable service plug, Gomes softens the judge’s final evaluation that there are “not enough prisons to house all of the culprits,” a claim most certainly meant to stand-in for Gomes’s own thoughts regarding his country’s fraudulent convictions.
As the title of the third tale, “The Owners of Dixie,” appears, Gomes’s discomfort with the project as a whole becomes apparent, since he’s disinterested in meaningful transitions. As such, one’s less giddy for the next story than weary of the film’s obfuscating transference of blame and reason into abstracted, vague gaffes of human behavior. The Desolate One forays into satirical terrain in order to elide actual dealings with the problems at hand, so that each piece feels alternatively frivolous and weighty, but resolutely lugubrious in its outré cynicism. Take this volume’s final passage, where a dog, Dixie, is passed from owner to owner—a clear appeal to Bressonian themes of humankind’s degradation of self via the subjugation of weaker, helpless animals.
A detour into the lives of those living in a nearby tower block, as told by an elderly couple, is a vivacious break from the film’s roundabout approach, especially as it glimpses adolescent pranks and innocent shenanigans. But the end is another puzzling drag; as two children implore Dixie to play, a ghost dog appears, literalizing a colonial specter that has been hinted at throughout. Is it a coincidence that the children are black? Has it been a coincidence that each segment features instances of racism, the second tale in particular ending with a punchline in which an African woman bakes a cake? Whatever Gomes wishes to exhume with The Desolate One is lost in the director’s solipsistic schoolyard shuffle.