Less than six months after its unveiling at Cannes' Director's Fortnight, it's clear that Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights has become one of the - if not the - major cinephile events of 2015. A madly ambitious, endlessly playful object that deliberately blurs reality and fiction with little regard for narrative conventions, Arabian Nights is an attempt at a mosaic portrait of a specific time and place: Portugal in the 2010s, a country in the throes of a brutal economic recession and damaging austerity policies that shake social foundations to its core. It becomes, thus, simultaneously a political and artistic statement, a film pressed to be "of its time" while also meant to remain valid for "the time to come". The artistic statement is propelled by the urgency of capturing the social mood of the country in a specific period before it dissipates, through an attempt at finding a way to frame and represent it beyond basic agit-prop terms. (Not that Mr. Gomes would ever stoop to those.)
The artistic choices made by the filmmakers also influence the way the politics are discussed and represented, however, to the point Arabian Nights itself becomes a protean shape-shifter that never stops long enough to get a fix on any one form: from laughter to tears, from reportage to fantasy, all organised under the aegis of storytelling as a way to record and make sense of time and history. It's storytelling as a (pre-)requisite for survival, as was the case with Scheherazade in the original collection of Persian tales. Hence, Arabian Nights as seen as Mr. Gomes and his team of regular collaborators is a way to make sense of and appropriate that which cannot be appropriated in any other way, but without betraying either those whose stories are being told, or the filmmaker's own identity.
This is crucial to the success of the project, because Arabian Nights' origin lies in a series of true stories representative of the effects of austerity in Portugal, researched by a small team of journalists hired by the production. These reports were then cherry-picked and reworked by Mr. Gomes and his screenwriters, long-standing collaborators Mariana Ricardo and co-editor Telmo Churro, eventually reaching the screen as neither straight documentary nor pure fiction, but instead as individual elements of a greater mosaic that blends both modes. What's "true" and what's not takes a back seat to capturing truthfully the mood and thoughts of "the people". (It's all true. And yet...)
The film's gargantuan structure, hit upon during the editing phase, derives from this urgency to bear witness: what started out as a single feature contractually bound to two and a half hours morphed into a six-hour statement divided in three two-hour films. Mr. Gomes is a music fan and the first thing that came to my mind after a full viewing of the triptych was the Clash's sprawling 1980 triple album Sandinista!. Like that record, Arabian Nights gains full relevance and significance as a whole greater than the sum of its parts and seen in the intended sequence of its three "volumes", regardless of the quality of its stand-alone elements.
That each of the three episodes is very different in tone, and that even within each of them there are ups and downs, is par for the course. And it's also part of the challenge that Arabian Nights poses to the modern-day viewer. Even if the whole is presented as easily digestible two-hour morsels, these work simultaneously with and against the current ADHD mode of viewing a film - on a tablet, on a computer, on the home television, as a DVD, as a streaming file, in small mouthfuls. While each of the three episodes is itself sub-divided into further instalments (in the manner of a continuing feuilleton or serial), it's extremely important to follow the series in its proper order to get the full effect. Not for nothing are the most alluring and "accessible" episodes of the lot front-loaded in Volume 1, The Restless One, a film that also conceptualizes the project as a wide-eyed adventure in reality, full of possibilities and opportunities, shifting more openly between "documentary" and "fiction", "us" and "them".
It starts out almost autobiographically (or as much as it can be in the work of a director that has made a point of always saying nothing is ever, only, what it seems): by setting Mr. Gomes himself as a clueless, ambitious filmmaker who may have bitten off more than he could chew in pursuing this project, and is entirely unsure as to how to make a movie out of the materials reality has handed to him. Behind this, in fact, lies a filmmaker laying his cards out in the open and seducing his audience with a disarming combination of braggadocio and virtuosity, before beginning to juggle his pins with outrageous ease and a very real sense of responsibility.
The Arabian Nights concept turns out to be Mr. Gomes' way of adjusting to the tonal and modal shifts inherent to the project, by presenting each tale as self-contained in tone and narrative yet part of an over-arching, fluid structure. The Scheherazade so enchantingly portrayed throughout the three Volumes by Crista Alfaiate is, both in her confidence and her doubts, an alter-ego of Mr. Gomes: a master storyteller dealing with the repercussions and the consequences of her storytelling choices, and her own learning process of what it means to be a storyteller. That is, to let the story take over and lead you wherever it may, relinquishing control of it in the very same process of harnessing it.
Moving from satirical burlesque to poignant melodrama while deftly balancing reality and invention, Arabian Nights might give you whiplash in the constant shifting of style and genre, none more so than in the first of the three films, where the rules of the game are laid out and beautifully explained. As a viewer, it's important to note how the cumulative effect works: the dazzling Volume 1, with its effortless segue from off-colour humour to popular fable coloured by the urgency of desperation, leaves you hungry for more as you admire both the conceptual daring of the project and the apparent ease with which it's all so expertly laid out. This first episode is also the one where the lines are more blurred - from an openly fictional, outlandish narrative performed by professional actors to a fictional drama that integrates real life elements into its narrative thread, having non-professionals play themselves alongside actors playing invented roles.
Like in all of Mr. Gomes' previous features, this only confirms Mr. Gomes' realization that the classic forms of storytelling have become quaint throwbacks that fail to take into account how life and the narrative conventions we use to make sense of it have changed. The main difference is that, where A Cara que Mereces, Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu worked roughly in two-part structures, Arabian Nights blossoms into a sort of polyphonic chorale, each tale a "voice" that changes and colours its surroundings.
The slighly desperate, progressively darker tone of Volume 2, The Desolate One, with the roundelays of a surreal trial that seems to indict all of society and a suburban apartment block where everybody struggles, suggests a fiendish carousel that digs deeper into the mud with each new turn. But that sense of getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea would make little sense without the quirky defiance of Volume 1, and only after the apparent fork in the road of Volume 3, The Charmed One, does everything reveal itself a whole.
Mostly given out to what seems at first a bewilderingly overlong tale about amateur songbird trainers, Volume 3's detour into a more straight-forward documentary record of a blue-collar, underground reality also highlights the resilience and escape valves that the less fortunate Portuguese seem to cling to in the worst of times - the hope of beauty and possibility found in even the smallest, darkest of places. That this is also the bittersweet final tale of the film, juxtaposed to Scheherazade's own acceptance of the destiny she has been dealt and her full awareness of her role, is extremely significant.
To make sure his Arabian Nights reflect accurately the experience of living in a crisis-ridden country, Mr. Gomes could not make his film other than in the process of making it, of telling his story/stories - just as the viewer does not truly understand it other than during the process of seeing it and letting it sink in. In fact, it's one of those cases where the work seems to open endless possibilities and readings as the three Volumes become a single film in the viewer's memory, sinking in slowly as a sprawling yet intimate epic transmogrification of "modern life as rubbish". Even this piece, intended initially as a capsule review of Volume 1, changed and evolved into what it is now - and I'm pretty sure I might just come back to it later and add as Arabian Nights continues weaving invisible webs of connections inside my mind.
AS MIL E UMA NOITES
Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland, 2015
VOLUME 1, O INQUIETO: 125 minutes
VOLUME 2, O DESOLADO: 132 minutes
VOLUME 3, O ENCANTADO: 125 minutes
Cast Crista Alfaiate, Rogério Samora, Maria Rueff, Adriano Luz, Dinarte Branco, Américo Silva, Diogo Dória, Bruno Bravo, Carloto Cotta, Basirou Diallo, Fernanda Loureiro, Aníbal Fabrica, Paulo Carvalho, Francisco Gaspar, Luísa Cruz, Margarida Carpinteiro, Gonçalo Waddington, Teresa Madruga, João Pedro Bénard, Joana de Verona, Bernardo Alves, Jing Jing Guo
Director Miguel Gomes; screenwriters Mr. Gomes, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro; cinematographers Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Mário Castanheira and Lisa Persson (widescreen); designers Bruno Duarte and Artur Pinheiro; costumes Sílvia Grabowski and Lucha d'Orey; editors Mr. Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques and Mr. Gomes; producers Luís Urbano and Sandro Aguilar, O Som e a Fúria in co-production with Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Productions, ARTE, ZDF, RTP, RTS SSG SSR, Agat Films and Michel Merkt
Screened July 3rd 2015, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde, Curtas Vila do Conde 2015 opening screening
As Mil e Uma Noites, Volume 1, O Inquieto - TRAILER from O SOM E A FÚRIA on Vimeo.