The number of films dealing head-on with the global economic crisis have been shockingly few, leaving the field wide open for someone with the creative complexity and storytelling verve of Miguel Gomes, whose three-part “Arabian Nights” tackles the subject with characteristic imagination and, unsurprisingly, righteous anger. While too early to tell how the trio of pics hang together, it’s possible to say from “Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One,” that audiences are in for a meaty opus that weaves actuality and allegorical fantasy into an outraged portrait of European austerity, witch doctors, the Portuguese politicos at their beck and call, and, most importantly, the unemployed masses. The project’s commercial viability is less clear, though art ouses will certainly find space.
It’s likely the films need to be released together, since clearly from the first entry they’re meant to be screened within a short period of time; weekends may be ideal, as the entire project clocks in at 381 minutes. The big question mark is: Will “Arabian Nights” transcend the helmer’s devoted fanbase to reach a wider audience? Given its sheer length, the answer is probably no, although the subject matter could beckon activists and legions of disaffected citizens furious at how the IMF and the World Bank seem deaf to the economic misery around them (in all honesty, however, the latter aren’t known for plunking down coinage for arty fare with multiple narratives).
Gomes’ devotees will delight in how “Arabian Nights” takes structural elements from “Our Beloved Month of August” as well as “Tabu” and stretches them even further: Using Scheherazade as the thread to bring together so many tales was a splendid move, allowing for all sorts of nonfiction and fiction stories to be woven together in a tapestry of frustration, melancholy and burlesque. Choosing Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular d.p. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lense the opus further cements Gomes’ reputation among his auteurist followers (though visual similarities are few).
Shot between 2013 and 2014, the pic stems from Gomes’ anguish at watching Portuguese society crumble under the outrageously heavy austerity burden imposed by European financial institutions. The director himself is seen early on running away from the film crew, his depression too much for the grand project he’s envisioned. Already we hear in voiceover men speaking of massive layoffs at the shipyards of Viana do Castelo, and this interchange between real people telling of their lives, alternating with fanciful storylines and outright satire, continues throughout Volume 1.
It appears Gomes himself, at least at the start, wasn’t sure how everything could fall into place. Intercutting the laid-off shipyard workers with discussions of a plague of wasps devastating the country’s beehives, he admits (perhaps disingenuously) that he doesn’t know how they connect, but he knows they must. Auds even marginally aware of Portugal’s economic plight can deduce that the wasps are like the European financial bodies, destroying indigenous industry.
From there he introduces Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), the classic storyteller who keeps one step ahead of her husband the sultan’s murderous impulses by telling a different tale each night, making him so eager to hear more that he allows her to live another day. Her first story (told on the 447th night) is the most outright satirical: “The Men With Hard-Ons.” Here, European bigwigs arrive on camels to tell Portuguese politicians they need to cut public expenditure by a ridiculous amount. On a stroll following an unhappy lunch, the group meets a wizard (Basirou Diallo) who offers them an aerosol spray that guarantees enormous, long-lasting hard-ons. Thrilled with their newfound prowess, the men relax their stranglehold on the nation’s economy, only to tighten it again when they discover that permanent erections have their disadvantages.
Next comes “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” inspired by the true tale of Fernanda Loureiro, who was taken to court because her rooster disturbed one of her neighbors. The cockerel itself, in voiceover, explains that it crows to warn people of coming danger, like a fire that devastates nearby fields — clearly, some people don’t wish to be informed of what’s coming. The last of the stories in “Volume 1” concerns three “Magnificents” (actually two men and one couple) who speak of their helplessness and anger in the face of unemployment. Gomes combines this with a Jonah-like tale, furthering biblical parallels that occasionally pepper the proceedings.
At times it appears the director gets subsumed by wanting to fit in too much, so a truncated story of a Chinese emperor goes nowhere (could it reappear in the other volumes?), and a scene with Austrian schoolkids, connected to the “Hard-On” episode, feels a bit dangly. Obviously it’s hard to fully judge “Arabian Nights” from one installment, yet without question, Gomes furthers his Bunuelian bona fides with biting allegories of capitalism run rampant. He may have started as a “helpless, paralyzed director,” as claimed early on, but he discovered how to channel his anger into a series of tales that balance real voices of economic hardship with parables on both the destructiveness of blind, deaf economic theory and the ineptitude of local politicians who agree to excessive demands.
Widescreen lensing on 16mm gives the satisfying tactility of much of Gomes’ previous work, allowing for a richer palette in some of the tales yet maintaining a sobriety in keeping with the quasi-documentary elements. Music is a sweeping, powerfully used melange, moving from Rimsky-Korsakov to Arvo Part.