Written by Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, and Telmo Churro
Directed by Miguel Gomes
In spite of its seemingly monumental ambitions, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights has never been in danger of being weighed down by pretensions. From the opening minutes of Volume One, Gomes has maintained an effervescent tone, albeit one tamed somewhat in the darker Volume Two. Even there, Arabian Nights keeps its focus on its main subject: the Portuguese people, and the ways in which they’ve felt the impact of austerity. As such, Gomes’s film always true to itself and never seems to stray from the director’s vision.
With all that in mind, even if the segment which comprises the bulk of Volume Three, titled “The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches,” would seem meandering and aimless in a different film, the documentary-like footage feels perfectly suited to Gomes’s aims. The story depicts a variety of Lisbon-area bird trappers, all of whom are intent on teaching their domesticated chaffinches to sing. These men enter their birds in song competitions, trying before-hand to train the animals for optimal singing abilities.
One could spend hours probing this segment for metaphors, perhaps (or perhaps not) fruitlessly. The birds are expressing themselves in captivity, as Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) does with her stories. The Portuguese people have been held hostage themselves by austerity, leaving them stuck in a cage without bars of sorts. Many of the men who train the birds are themselves unemployed, and they seek, in their domestication, a way to exert a certain control which otherwise eludes them.
But above any of these possible symbols, what stands out about the section is Gomes’s commitment to providing a panoramic view of the Portuguese people. Devoid of a narrative, or even a strong connection to the rest of the film, “The Inebriated Chorus” allows viewers to meditate on the fates of men who one cannot imagine having much of a voice otherwise. The specific significance of the chaffinches could be debated endlessly, but the segment, if nothing else, brings to the screen the stories of men who’d otherwise remain a secret to audiences around the world.
Gomes uses a clearer narrative approach in the opening of the film, but it’s still in the service of bringing to light an otherwise neglected tale. Throughout Arabian Nights, the element given the least attention and interest has been its framing device, Scheherazade, and the opening seeks to correct that. She spends time with her father, the Grand Vizier (Americo Silva), worries about her ability to survive, and toys with the beautiful and potent, if air-headed, Paddle Man (Carloto Cotta). Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom one-ups even his stunning work from Volume Two, depicting Scheherazade’s paradisiacal milieu in ravishing fashion. Scheherazade’s struggle has a genuine pathos to it, generating heartfelt emotions out of a fantastical situation. In Volume Three, she comes to life, going beyond being a narrative technique and becoming a moving character in her own right. At the same tim,e Gomes still doesn’t abandon the film’s comic touch, finding the perfect balance between humor and melancholy, particularly in Scheherazade’s encounters with Paddle Man
Although the segment has the most metaphorical and abstract connection to contemporary Portugal, Gomes’s decision to focus on a woman’s plight can’t help but resonate with the struggles undoubtedly faced by real-life Portuguese women. Although she doesn’t deal with austerity, she still copes with patriarchal oppression, and the segment pays tribute to the trials of Portuguese women in moving and rapturous fashion.
Gomes also finds the time for the story of a Chinese exchange student in “Hot Forest,” providing an outsider’s perspective on the events in Portugal. Over powerful and evocative protest footage, the girl narrates the tale of her experience. As with the chaffinches and Scheherazade, the segment provides, if nothing else, a representation of a new experience, making it a move towards an encyclopedic view of life in Portugal under austerity, albeit one presented from a very particular (but no less vital) lens.
After three volumes, the vitality of this lens undoubtedly asserts itself, leaving viewers with a powerful historical document of Portuguese experience. Through Arabian Nights, Gomes creates a humorous, gorgeous, and captivating view of life in Portugal, and one which won’t be easy to forget. The final dedication to his daughter makes his aims clear: the film intends to help future generations understand life during a bizarre moment in history. Only time will tell how well Arabian Nights will or won’t fulfill those intentions, but for now Gomes has simply created a remarkable film.