Tuesday, October 4, 2016

ARABIAN NIGHTS (As Mil e uma Noites, 2015)

Miguel Gomes' project isn't as voluminous as it could be -- I say this with Out 1 still fresh in my memory --  but at 6 hours, 22 minutes, his phantasmagorical satire can at least claim to do justice to the title it appropriates. Gomes made his name in arthouse circles with his 2012 picture Tabu. His new subject was Portugal's austerity regime, though only a relatively small fraction of the three-part picture confronts economic policy directly. Arabian Nights combines actuality footage of current events in Portugal, from the opening vignette of the closing of a shipyard to massive protests by the nation's police, with a magical realism that proves a curious way to illustrate both the impact of globalization and the Portuguese people's apparent subjection to the whims of higher powers.

The perils of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), who must beguile her caliph with stories to stay alive from night to night, are an allegory for both the threat austerity poses to filmmakers like Gomes, who depend in part on state subsidies, and the challenge the director sets for himself with his long project. Her stories range from the ribald tales we may associate with the original "Arabian Nights," especially the first film's "The Men With the Hard-Ons," to the virtual documentary narrative, "The Inebriating Song of the Chaffinches" (surely the right word is "Intoxicating") that takes up most of the third film. Gomes' hope is that his framing device will encourage audiences to approach the wide variety of subject matter he offers with equal curiosity and sympathy, that we might discover something as wondrous in the competition of birdsong collectors as we may in the more fantastical stories.

It's probably a good idea for Gomes to get his most spiteful tale, "Men With the Hard-Ons," out of the way early. In it, the bureaucrats and hacks negotiating some austerity-era deal meet a wizard who offers the men in the group perpetual erections for a hefty price, only to give them a further taste of their own medicine by demanding another payoff when tumescence proves bothersome or inconvenient. This episode's ad hominem attitude toward its subjects contrasts with the more humane tone that prevails through most of the project. More typical, if not the entire project's signature episode, is "The Tears of the Judge" in the second film. The judge holds court in a little amphitheatre that eventually fills with an exotic collection of characters, each invoked to explain the circumstances of the person before, from animal-costumed bandits to Chinese immigrants to a genie and the ghost of a cow. The endless interconnectedness of it all makes for riveting and sometimes hilarious viewing, and Arabian Nights is at its best when it juxtaposes the mundane and the magical in one frame to inform our view of the world we live in.

The third and final film may seem at first glance like Gomes was slapping stuff together just to have a trilogy without achieving any closure -- Scheherazade is little more than halfway done when the film ends and there's no wrap-up to her story -- but it has some of the project's most memorable moments. She has more screen time here than in the other films, confessing to her father her fatigue and fear when they meet in an amusement park after encountering such odd creatures as an annoying air genie and the sexually prolific Paddleman. Gomes makes an interesting point of emphasizing how many possibly fascinating folk and phenomena he shows us that Scheherazade will never discover or describe, which may be his way of preparing us for an open-ended conclusion without a conclusion. As the character disappears, not even to be heard but rather quoted in title cards as she spends day after day after day telling of the chaffinches and their masters, or taking off on the occasional tangent, viewers might wonder why her head hadn't rolled already. But Gomes manages to make the birdsong saga worthy of at least some of our attention, while the major digression of "The Tale of Hot Forest" is a tour de force of layered meaning. We see the police protest footage I mentioned earlier, a public action on an epic scale, while we hear the Chinese narrative of an exchange student -- the title character of the tale -- who has an affair with a policeman (also involved with the chaffinches) before getting deported, and over that we hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra's version of "Perfidia," the virtual theme song of the third film. The juxtaposition may make no obvious sense, except to emphasize the constant juxtapositions of our globalized existence, but the cumulative effect is dazzling. In its own way, so is the climactic tracking shot of the chaffinch trainer Chico Chapas taking a very long walk through the hills, after one more moment of fantasy with the rescue of a genie caught in a chaffinch trap. If there's no real ending of the story, Gomes seems to tell us with this sequence that that's because things are still moving and probably will never stop, even though his film must.

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