As shapeless and occasionally sublime as its predecessors, the third segment of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy begins in the “Antiquity of Time” of the “Baghdad archipelago,” where actors in lavishly designed Arabic clothing laze and dance around a rocky seashore, with an undisguised, modern Portugal as a backdrop. Here, the bewitching storyteller Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) takes part in a narrative rather similar to the one she’s been weaving. Instead of regaling a bloodthirsty king with folk and fairy tales in order to save the skin of her country people, Scheherazade is tempted by a series of tempters, bandits, and magical genies. They offer her experience rather than stories: a genial thief named Elvis break-dances for her; a prolifically reproductive charmer, Paddleman (Carloto Cotta), tries to seduce her; and a hipster guitarist plays in the backdrop as a windblown Scheherazade sings a multilingual pop song, the scene’s cuts and compositions redolent of Wilson Phillips’s 1990 music video for “Hold On.”
Scheherazade’s vanilla pop moment sits bafflingly and uneasily next to the moment that precedes it: a split-screen shot, where the heroine talks in front of a band of scuffling thieves. The left side of the screen focuses on Scheherazade and her interlocutor. The right side is, somehow, directly behind them. This sort of beguiling, silent-era magic is all over Arabian Nights, with its ghost dogs, dissolves, overlays, iris shots, and exploding whales. It’s the tissue connecting a project that moves with deliberately inconsistent rhythms. One story ends, and another begins. Or one story begets another story that begets another. Or, as with the first 40 minutes of Arabian Nights’s final segment, The Enchanted One, one character participates in a series of micro-narratives, very little of which seem to have much to do with the surrounding six hours of Gomes’s project.
Does this epically anti-epic approach collide with Gomes’s explicitly stated political intent, to respond to the plight of Portugal’s citizens under the fiscally angst-ridden thumb of the European Union? Gomes combats austerity with expansiveness, leavened by doses of frivolity and scatology. His enemies (greed, dishonesty, social injustice) seem to remain the same from tale to tale, tilting a couple of the film’s chapters toward torpid moral scolding or even more torpid expression of social isolation. But Arabian Nights is ultimately persuasive as a work of cinematic Shandyism, one where the author’s dexterity serves to endorse a view of humanity as a source of endless narrative and revelatory diversions. The trilogy’s constellation of local struggles—over a bleating cockerel, access to a public beach, or simple addiction and loneliness—attain an accumulating weight, as the underserved voices of Gomes’s Portuguese characters gradually begin to dictate the rhythms of Arabian Nights. The final chapter of The Enchanted One helps them reach raw, existential depths.
Miguel Gomes combats austerity with expansiveness, leavened by doses of frivolity and scatology.
“The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches,” unfolding for around 80 minutes (with one notable diversion), is the longest story of the trilogy. It plays like a straight documentary, though one actor (Chico Chapas, who plays Simão “Without Bowels” in volume two, The Desolate One) returns under a different guise, and another (Gonçalo Waddington, Vania’s boyfriend, Vasco, in the prior film) comes back as the same character. Chronicling a broad cast of amateur bird-trappers, the story moves freely from one to another as they roam through forests snaring birds, carefully tend to them at home, and prepare them for a birdsong competition, which will take place under a tarp next to Lisbon’s airport.
Gomes, like the trappers, focuses on minutiae: how each man folds fabric over his birds’ cages (to prevent them from startling at the sight of other chaffinches), and their varying approaches at training their treasured animals to sing. Meanwhile, text fills the screen frequently and at length. It’s structured in quotation marks, as fragments of Scheherazade’s orations to her husband, but lays out everything from basic facts about the chaffinches to the material and spiritual struggles of the trappers. Amid its digressions are a brief history of postwar Portugal and a discourse on public housing in Lisbon.
The chapter is suffused with the alternately dreamy and irritating twitter of birdsong, live and recorded. The ubiquitous caged chaffinches, blind in their blanketed cages, play doubles to their caretakers, the helpless victims of EU dictates and the broken men trying to put their lives back together. Gomes holds this obvious symbolism at bay with a keen eye on the men at work. “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” manages, without winking, to fold in actors, imagery, and concerns from previous sections of Arabian Nights. Despite its languorous, gentle rhythms, the sequence has a sustained and heavily localized sense of moral urgency, one that helps to validate Gomes’s seemingly devil-may-care approach to style, structure, and sermon elsewhere throughout the trilogy.
“Chaffinches” only pauses for an interlude entitled “Hot Forest,” about a Chinese teenager who arrives in Portugal and becomes trapped there as a participant in and bystander to numerous mundane tragedies. Delivered in voiceover to images of recent, massive public protests, this busy narrative, loosely connected to a one of the trappers, both complements and amplifies the quiet suffering of Gomes’s penultimate batch of struggling souls. Like every successful story in Arabian Nights, each of theirs contain multitudes, which Gomes pursues with warmth and rewarding patience, before ending his trilogy with a children’s choir performing a song popularized by the Carpenters. Flawed and substantial from the outset, Arabian Nights finishes at a moment of greatness before ending at another moment of forgivable clunkiness.