It feels like an inevitable folly to attempt reviewing Miguel Gomes’ six-hour Portuguese epic Arabian Nights separately as three films, rather than as one. I’m often skeptical of how one can claim to have a complete perspective on a film they have yet to finish, an issue I had last year particularly regarding Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, a singular entity whose separate pieces don’t work to as fluid or engrossing an effect without one another. It’s a thrilling sense of incompleteness, though, that compels me to isolate the three separate volumes of Gomes’ infinitely storied vision. “CHAOS IS MY LIFE”, we see painted on a wall late into the furiously outreaching first installment, aptly titled The Restless One. For a moment it’s unclear whether this phrase is meant as accusation or anthem. When these words blare in through a fierce heavy metal song, introduced via anticipatory onscreen countdown clock, both answers are proudly, boisterously validated.
Long before Gomes submits to such such irresistibly playful storytelling devices – from monologuing cockerels to a text message love story – he firmly grounds us in both the current Portuguese financial crisis and the exaggerated origins of the film itself. Its first act is an expository prologue, but in Gomes’ hands, it’s a sprawling, melancholic, yet deeply funny digression and overt confession of Gomes’ own professional and societal frustrations. Those familiar with Our Beloved Month of August won’t be surprised to see Gomes is a literal, if obviously exaggerated, character in his own film. These unfocused, obsessive opening scenes center on Gomes’ aggrieved breakdown at the expansive poverty that’s seized his country as a consequence of the Portuguese government’s financially strangling austerity measures.
But we don’t start on Gomes’ voice, but instead the voices of recently unemployed shipyard workers, whose vague bodies and silhouettes we see on the dock as the camera departs the recently closed workplace. Gomes could be accused of indulgence, going so far as to thrust his onscreen crew members into fear that they might lose their jobs when Gomes bolts off the film set, neurotic at how unwieldy this cinematic undertaking is. It ultimately isn’t ambition, though, that pushes him to craft this fantastical odyssey, but the forceful penalty of death should he fail to continue telling stories. Even the visionary behind this grandiose undertaking can’t escape the demands of the economic structures around him. Arabian Nights is a film born out of political need, but also, as the film posits, economic necessity.
After Gomes has made the anxiety of filmmaking known, we transition to the less harried structure that will define the remainder of the trilogy’s runtime. Utilizing the structure of middle eastern folk-story collection “Arabian Nights”, Gomes supplants himself with Arabian queen Scheherezade in the role of mortally encumbered storyteller. Their goals are not so dissimilar. Scheherezade seeks not only to remain alive at the hands of a notoriously murderous king, but to keep him from inflicting on harm on further virgin women. Each night, Scheherezade will tell the king fantastical stories that she won’t finish until the following morning; stories which somehow focus on the hardships of contemporary Portugal. In this sense, storytelling is a process that mediates hardships for others as well as oneself, not merely, as Gomes fears, a self-serving exercise in grandiosity.
The first story told in Volume One, The Restless One takes that titular condition towards a hysterically phallic interpretation. A counter-intuitively emasculating satire, “The Men with Hard-Ons” focuses on a gang of European politicians enforcing already strict spending cuts upon Portugal, with an obviously egotistical lack of attachment. When a wizard suddenly bestows upon the men eternally raging erections, they feel so taken by bliss as to loosen their monetary grasps. When this boisterous pleasure challenges their everyday domestic interests, though, they must decide whether to thrust (heh) Portugal into harsher economic limitations, or forever be unable to quell their excruciatingly pleasurable boners. Its the kind of ludicrous origin story to national inequities that hints at a universality, beyond Portugal’s present state, to Gomes’ furious political metaphor.
There’s more literal unrest fueling to conflict in “The Cockerel and the Fire”. Obviously, as anyone could tell from a mile away, it’s anchored by a talking cockerel’s defense testimony. Late at night, much to the irritation of its neighbors, the rooster crows long before the sunrise. Correspondingly, the areas surrounding the town are often consumed by wildfires caused by arsonists. It’s a story about those unwilling to awaken to the very problems facing them on a daily basis, and thus unwilling to be accountable for the subsequent destruction.
Restlessness, in Gomes’ mind, means being pro-active, and ought a cultural necessity regardless of the country’s status. Volume One justly concludes with its only story about somebody seeking to raise his fellow citizens into unified recreational activity. “The Swim of the Magnificents” focuses on a man collecting testaments of unemployed individuals in his quest to organize the titular sporting event. Beyond the testimonies, captured in patient and concerned long-takes, the man’s own story extends to treating a physical condition in the dank stomach of a sea-creature, which later explodes upon the beach, unearthing an exhausted mermaid in her death throes. It’s more grandiose biblical ties require deeper perusing, but make Arabian Nights a fine pair with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s similar blend of political and mythic metaphor, Leviathan.
Just as Gomes funnels his storytelling duties through Scheherezade, she funnels hers to the characters of these stories, each of whom branch off into their own stories. In the middle of “The Cockerel”, we switch to the story of a love triangle between a young boy and the two girls who love him, communicated (and likely misunderstood) through abbreviated text messages. (I wonder how Pasolini and Antonioni would’ve interpreted “I ZZZZZ of U”.) Storytelling is roundly used as a way of moving forward and instigating activity, that aforementioned necessity. “When we’re employed we want to do things, and when we’re unemployed we can’t summon the energy,” one of “the Magnificents'” testimonies remarks. That sense of stasis amid periods of financial devastation is another one that transcends culture, and it’s an appropriate closing note as Gomes’ grand opus wrestles itself to vigorous life in spite the depression from which it emerges.
Bottom Line: Arabian Nights, Volume One kicks off Miguel Gomes’ immense Portuguese odyssey with furious creative energy and restless activism.