If a film has no true beginning or end, what sense of completeness can it have? This is often a question in regards to the middle installment of a trilogy, and while I may ultimately wrangle the three parts of Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’ epic Portuguese financial drama/absurdist fantasy anthology, as one cohesive, surprisingly coherent work, they remain equally fascinating as separate entities. Volume Two begins without a harried, self-aware introduction from Miguel Gomes, the director deeply aggrieved by the economic devastation Portugal’s austerity measures have wrought. Nor is Scheherezade, the middle eastern queen keeping herself alive through stories told to a violent king, physically present, save a beautiful end credits cutaway of her cruising on a speedboat. As we’re dropped in the middest of this extensive odyssey, there’s perhaps not room for pleasant introductions or cathartic conclusions, but The Desolate One feels like a deeply resonant, even independent, work without that busywork.
As the above subtitle suggests, Arabian Nights is now moored in a period of desolation and poverty of both the financial and emotional variety, with a sense of unsinkable melancholy and inexorable moral failure uniting its three stories. After Volume One‘s frenzied rush of anger and defiant activity, we enter Volume Two with a sense of exhaustion, not with Gomes’ densely tiered storytelling, but from the perpetual poverty inflicted on his country. In each of its stories we central central and secondary characters making allowances and compromises for the vast injustices and inequities callously, but mostly ignorantly, inflicted by its flailing government system.
The first story, quite robustly titled “The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao ‘Without Bowels'”, is the only one to reflect its Desolate subtitle in form as much as theme. Simao is an escaped criminal, traversing the countryside in avoidance of dinky, toy-sized police copters, besotten by visions of gleefully acquiescing prostitutes frolicking atop him and serving him a candlelit banquet of pheasants. Scheherezade wastes no time in commenting on Simao’s supposed evilness, but given our incomplete knowledge of his crimes, his actions and demeanor feel less monumentally sinister than passingly repulsive and insensitive. His nickname, ‘Without Bowels’, comes due to his constant leanness, in spite his propulsive gluttony. Likewise, the chapter slowly sees Simao become a symbolic hero of defiance against the law, in spite the reveal of his irredeemably cruel crimes. Evil and injustice, it seems, is easy to ignore if it’s not flagrantly on display.
These failures of government infrastructure and human decency persist in “The Tears of the Judge”, Gomes’ most conceptually riotous story yet, which floats along almost entirely without Scheherezade’s mesmerizing voiceover. The floor is instead ceder over to both the titular judge, overseeing a simple case of stolen furniture, and the attendants of the court she’s overseeing. But this simple case spirals far beyond its origins and illogically out of control as one accused person accuses another of some cruel crime against them. Blame is tossed wildly across the purplish-lit outdoor court, the crimes revealing crude heirarchies of gender and race, yet still straining credulity. A jaded genie, a bereaved talking cow, a gang of squealing thieves and thirteen reserved Chinese mail-order brides represent only a handful of the accused. None is strong enough to accept blame and consequence, many driven by economic desperation to commit their crimes, but it’s the judge, though, who fails to emotionally sustain the weight of moral compromise, slowly, uproariously breaking down over the endless cycle of unaccountable guilt.
While these two stories are structurally simple and air-tightly contained, The Desolate One‘s emotionally immense closing story, “The Owners of Dixie”, branches off in unruly stylistic and narrative directions. Dog lovers will have their hearts sweetly smothered over this cleverly bisected (and later trisected) story, where a dog shuttles between owners as no personal feels emotionally or financially confident enough to singularly support him. Named Dixie, after the first owner’s deceased dog whom he resembles, Scheherezade similarly assigns the dead dog’s name unto the couch-surfing mutt, speaking volumes to how desperately we use living stand-ins as placeholders for long-deceased joys in life. But Dixie isn’t merely an observer of emotional strain, but the connective tissue that bridges the space between these isolated, impoverish souls.
Not as spare to the bone as “Simao ‘Without Bowels'”, nor as anxious and hysterically impatient as “Tears of the Judge”, “Dixie” is allowed to pierce deep reservoirs of pain and misery as festering, profoundly isolating, disease in its dense extrapolation of a single apartment complex’s many fragmented stories. It’s the closest Arabian Nights comes to the patient, attentive emotional tenor of the first half of Tabu, but it also features moments of transcendent, almost romantic catharsis, often through 1980s pop songs – Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” somehow elevates itself to profound political defiance as two couple from different generations find their communal joining liberates them, if momentarily, from the suffocating austerity of their lives. In a sense “Dixie” is yet another microcosm of what Gomes is doing overall with Arabian Nights, capturing the whole vividness of Portuguese life, even encumbered by economic injustices.
Bottom Line: Despite its narrative restraint, Arabian Nights: Volume Two gathers profound political potency through piercing empathy for the socio-economically devastated.