Directed by Miguel Gomes
Written by Miguel Gomes, Telmo Churro, and Mariana Ricardo
As each separate volume stresses in its title sequence, this is not an adaptation of the original book Arabian Nights. While it’s not a surefire adaptation, Miguel Gomes’ series certainly takes a lot from it, including the structure (which the films admit to) and the lead character of Scheherazade. Ultimately it uses the basis from the original Arabian Nights to provide commentary on a period in Portugal in which the country faced economic and political turmoil. Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy includes Volume One – The Restless One, Volume Two – The Desolate One, and Volume Three – The Enchanted One. Each volume consists of three stories, with a prologue in volume one. While the film captures the epic quality of the novel, Gomes takes the idea of adaptation to a new level, capturing the essence of his country during a difficult time
The beginning of the first volume is anything but what its title suggests. It starts off by showcasing the closing of a pivotal shipyard in Portugal and how it affects the workers. It then switches to the director of the film, Miguel Gomes, who is supposedly in the midst of directing a film about the shipyard. He flees from his crew, who eventually find him and are determined to enact some form of punishment. But before doing so, he treats them to a tale, which is when the movie really begins. This whole sequence is filled with quirks, and is probably the most enjoyable part of the entire series. The self-awareness is charming, and the film within a film aspect is very reminiscent of Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night, a mockumentary on the filmmaking process. This element adds the right amount of subtle comedy before getting into the heart of the film.
The transition from this prologue to Scheherazade and her storytelling is odd. There’s a feeling of being thrown into a whole new movie entirely. While the oddness of it is strangely refreshing, The Restless One doesn’t ever really top its beginning. The rest of it is Scheherazade telling her husband, the king, three stories. Her storytelling is the key to her survival, as the king is known to get a bit be-heady with his wives. All of the stories she tells in all three volumes reflect the state that Portugal was in from 2013 to 2014, mostly the poverty that struck the Portuguese people.
The three stories in each volume don’t appear to have anything in common content wise at first. Thematically they are all connected, but it truly feels like the stories could have been switched around and put in different volumes and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Ultimately, each volume has at least one or two stories that are memorable. The second volume, The Desolate One, is strongest in its second story: a genuinely hysterical satire revolving around a judge working what should be a simple case that turns out to involve almost everyone in the courtroom. It shines because of how it’s written and also because the other two stories are incredibly weak in comparison. The second story immediately has the viewer hooked with its explicit nude images that don’t really have anything to do with the rest of the story. But once the judge starts addressing the court the story really takes off.
The last of the three volumes, The Enchanted One, strays from the blatant social and political elements of the other two volumes, and also from the structure that the other two established. It’s not necessarily a let down so much as a come down from the heavy political and social allegories. They’re still present, but in a much subtler way. There are certain disappointments, especially since it’s the final volume, but one can’t help but think that that is the director’s intention: to have the series’ most exciting and engaging moments in the first and second volumes and to have the final story be more contemplative and less active than the rest. Although the beginning of this volume is the most captivating sequence of the film as it revisits Scheherazade. She draws attention with her wisdom and beauty, seemingly helpless at the hands of a cruel king and yet a true free spirit. Scheherazade is essentially the saving grace of the movie in terms of character since she is the only one present in every volume. Her presence is finally given more consideration in the third film, showcasing her importance as a symbol for an oppressed society.
The series as a whole is epic, yet filled with inconsistencies. It’s purposeful that not every story is as compelling as it could be: the more low key ones are meant to be realistic, hitting more at the emotions and the state of being of most of the Portuguese people during this time period in their country. While extremely poignant even in its odd moments, Arabian Nights doesn’t need to be three films long, although it’s clear that Gomes still wanted it to feel as epic as the novel despite his series not being an adaptation. Of course it’s an adaptation, but refreshingly it creates its own content while only using the novel’s structure. It’s not a perfect three volume film series, but it’s an important one in terms of how it raises the bar for book-to-film adaptations and for films that also attempt at unapologetic and critical social commentary.