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May 03, 2016

Arabian Nights


Miguel Gomes - 2015
Kino Lorber BD Region A

As I've written before, sometimes it's a challenge to be articulate about a film that defies easy descriptions or explanations. Even reading what others have written about Arabian Nights doesn't make my work any easier. It's a sprawling collection of stories that Miguel Gomes claims were inspired by the structure of the classic tales, about life in Portugal during the government imposed austerity program between August 2013 and July 2014. Yet Gomes contradicts himself as there are moments when ancient Baghdad appears in a contemporary Mediterranean setting.

No distinctions of genre are here as Gomes floats between documentary and fantasy, past and present, political engagement and sex farce. Scheherazade told her tales over one-thousand and one nights. Gomes made a leisurely paced trio of films that runs about six and a half hours altogether. The films do need to be seen together, or at least in the proper sequence, as there are some moments that connect to previous tales. A further instance of Gomes' penchant for self-contradiction is that the second film, The Desolate One uses excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" suite.

It's the song, "Perfidia" that is repeated in several versions throughout the film. You've probably heard the song, even if you don't know the title, as it has been used in several other films, and recorded by a number of musicians. The lyrics are from the point of view of a betrayed lover, about the folly of romantic love. I can only guess that the song was chosen as the expression of citizen who loves his country, but feels spurned by a government that suppose to work on behalf of the least among them.

A Portuguese acquaintance expressed surprise that Arabian Nights has been getting international attention due to the specificity of most of the narratives. Gomes' stories, or story fragments, are of the working class, the ones most severely affected by the austerity programs. A factory town known for ship building sees closure of its industry, with nothing to take its place. Evictions take place at an apartment complex on such a regular basis that residents help those being evicted with sorting out their property. With nothing else to do, men in a suburb of Lisbon trap finches, and have competitions based on the birds' singing. At a trial between a landlord and tenants, multiple stories are relayed, how different people have been made desperate by the effects of the austerity measures, and the unintended cause and effect relationships that link a community.

Gomes made the interesting choice to have Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this film. Sayombhu has been associated with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. There is some similarity between the two filmmakers as they both make allegorical films about their respective countries, real life stories are used as a starting off point, and fantasy intermingles with reality.

The Blu-ray includes a booklet with some production notes by Gomes and an essay by critic Dennis Lim. There is also Gomes discussing the first part of Arabian Nights following the screening at the New York Film Festival, and a short made mostly of documentary footage and imagined first person narratives of several European leaders, Redemption.

Miguel Gomes

Posted by peter at May 3, 2016 05:31 PM