“It’s the poor version of Star Wars. It’s Return of the Jedi but we don’t have little bears.” Don’t think it sounds like a stretch to compare a six hour anthology feature about economic depression in Portugal to the most popular, grandiose science-fiction testament in history. While Gomes’ comments from a NYFF Q&A may seem like a reach for relevance, his films have bared out the comparison in terms of expansively imaginative scope and the tonal registers of his three Arabian Nights films. The Restless One is Gomes’ A New Hope, full of relentlessly outgoing energy and, er, physical activity. The Desolate One is his The Empire Strikes Back, where we see the Portuguese people start to relent under the emotional, moral and financial pressure placed on them by the government’s austerity measures.
Given the accuracy of that comparison, one may feel hesitant to approach Arabian Nights: Volume Three, The Enchanted One, if it is indeed the equivalent to Return of the Jedi. It’s true, Gomes doesn’t have Ewoks, but he does make a gamble in his final act that’s bound to polarize viewers on the way out of this mammoth undertaking. Before we get to how Gomes concludes Arabian Nights, his grandly knit anthology of Portuguese struggle, suffering and perseverance, we’re lead on an opulent, improbable journey through the titular story he’s pulling his structure from. After two volumes so loosely held together by the thread of Arabian queen Scheherezade telling stories to her mad, violent king to keep his tyranny towards women at bay, we start Volume Three outside the realm of her stories as she goes in search of others.
Wandering away from the palace, overwhelmed by the duty of telling stories for her own survival and that of others, Scheherezade indulges in the humble pleasures of several common people, from an impossibly handsome, naively imbecilic blonde rower, to a blustering genie of the wind. Each is offset by onscreen text, exposing Scheherezade’s lack of agency in the story enveloping the stories she’s telling, telling us of the secret, vivid lives of the people she meets, but will never truly know. Even as she mournfully joins her father on a Ferris Wheel, somehow existent in ancient Baghdad, there’s a distance to how deeply she can understand her own parent’s turmoil and dread over his deceased wife and the threat to his children. The vivid, sun-soaked nature of life is on display, but death looms oppressively.
At this moment we expect to continue the same bout of entrancing storytelling as before, with Scheherezade’s voice lyrically and deliciously coaxing us through further strange, absurdist stories towards a climax. But we don’t, though, or at least not exactly. Her storytelling continues, but her voice falls silent, the remainder of the film being communicated through exhaustively descriptive onscreen text. Thus begins “The Inebriating Chorus of Chaffinches”, Gomes’ most lengthy, cumbersome story, yet also the truly devastating linchpin of his grand cinematic statement.
With text leading us through Scheherezade’s protracted telling, keeping her alive for days on end through the same repetitive story, we learn that several men in Portugal regularly seek to catch chaffinches for recreational sport. Each bird sings a different particular variation on the same whistle chirp. The birds can be taught to learn new songs by learning from other chaffinches. Some men seek to catch as many birds as possible. Others seek to artificially manufacture new bird calls. At a point, we stop keeping a clear count of each trainer, strained by both the strain of reading each description and the dilution of their only slightly differentiated experiences. To cap off his grandly encompassing trilogy, Gomes doesn’t weave another grand, enthusiastic narrative, though the playful first act, full of music and color, gives us faint hope that he will.
And for a moment the diluted chirping is halted by a human voice, though not Scheherezade’s. “Hot Forest”, the film’s brief penultimate story, is narrated by an young Asian immigrant girl, telling the story of her failed affair with a Portuguese man, and her experience living with a charitable elderly citizen and her prejudiced family. As presented against images of political protest, this brief, resonant moment of outspoken feminist voice breaks through the incessant recreational finch teaching. At least, momentarily, as the chorus unconscionably resumes as the trainers meet for their final competition, still pushing their birds to sing, to be understood, but not to be appreciated. It’s Gomes’ most intensely labored political statement in a series which, up to a point, has been quite ebullient and unexpectedly entertaining.
This is, arguably enough, a bridge too far for many viewers, subjecting us to the same suffocating austerity as the characters we’ve been witnessing. This final chapter does become a labor, but one with such great purpose and profound meaning to earn our patience. It’s a mirror of “Arabian Nights”‘ own structure, where Scheherezade fears finishing the story, as it may result in her death. Likewise, we see the Portuguese people also forced to serve brutally, to keep telling stories that spiritually drain them, for fear of death and collapse. The depression hitting Portugal is a thing that may persist and change with time, but Gomes has wrought the intense pain and hope of his country across this extensive canvas. The emotional payoff for his exhausting final coup is, justly, a wallop. A heavy hit to the chest. A call for consideration of the stories conveyed, and the anguished voice of the Portuguese people, but also any people who’ve suffered under the inequities and failures of their government. Arabian Nights is a series that realizes both the joys and incredible human burdens of storytelling.
Bottom Line: Arabian Nights, Vol. 3 fully realizes profound, challenging empathy of Gomes’ trilogy, a culturally specific, yet universally compelling masterwork.