After a joyous, energetic opening, the second installment of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, subtitled The Desolate One, takes a turn, appropriate to its title, for the darker. The humor which makes the opening such a blast certainly hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it’s become more subdued, and at times even cruel.
The shift in tone is evident from the beginning of the first story, “Chronicle of the Escape of Simao ‘Without Bowels,’” which, in spite of the similarity its title bears to the jocularity of “Volume One,” aims for a more meditative tone. The title refers to an aging fugitive (Chico Chapas), on the run after murdering four women (including his wife and daughter), who hides from police drones and creates a hedonistic paradise for himself amidst barren land. In spite of the ostensible brutality of his crimes, he’s unable to keep himself from becoming a folk hero, and earnest citizens create signs to express their adoration.
But much of the focus on the story lies on Simao’s isolation, and the result is a more reflective segment than anything in the opening installment. Gomes’s handiwork, along with that of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, never strays far from the viewer’s mind, particularly in the ravishing “Island of the Young Virgins” segment from Volume One, but “Chronicle” is more continuously breathtaking than anything else in the first two films. On top of conveying the extent of Simao’s alienation and loneliness, the story contains gorgeous scenery, making for a aesthetically compelling backdrop to the story.
In addition to being a vehicle for stunning cinematography, “Chronicle” is a tale of law and order, as is the next story, “The Tears of the Judge.” After a seemingly tangential opening depicting a young woman who has recently lost her virginity, she calls her mother, who happens to be the titular judge (Luisa Cruz). She presides over a case of stolen property which continues to escalate as more and more people bring forth accusations in the kangaroo court, eventually coming to encapsulate cows, a genie, and mail-order brides.
Despite being more overtly comic than anything in Volume One, “Tears” has a darkness to it which is new for the films. The segment includes a repeated rape joke involving a man who constantly craves “puss,” and the treatment of the subject matter has a crassness to it which feels sophomoric, even in comparison with a story like “The Men With a Hard-On” (featured in the first film). Of course, Gomes attempts to tell the sad story of a nation in troubled times with his films, but the situation still doesn’t excuse the crude humor he features here.
That being said, the law and order themes of the first two stories make for a welcome contrast with the economic focus of Volume One. Naturally, the financial aspect of Portugal’s austerity crisis is only part of the story, and the first two thirds of Volume Two are effective for bringing in an important dimension of life in contemporary Portugal. Even with the overtly jokey tone of “Tears” (and perhaps because of it), Gomes expresses the absurdity and complexity of understanding right and wrong under the influence of austerity. Murderers are heroes, cows appear in legal cases, and any sense of normality can be tossed out the window.
Gomes makes steps back towards the realm of the real in “The Owners of Dixie,” the final story. The titular dog gets passed amongst owners within a working-class housing complex, and his journey allows windows into the lives of a variety of Portuguese people (as always seems to be Gomes’s aim). Eviction notices get issued right and left, mimicking a situation which has undoubtedly been a common one in real-life Portugal. Dixie endures through it all, making for a humorous and charming lens into the dire situations.
The mix of humor and melancholy appears to be a defining combination for Gomes throughout the first two parts of Arabian Nights, even if the melancholy wins out in the second segment. Given the situation Gomes represents, the tonal shift feels more than justified.