×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One’

The second installment of Miguel Gomes' opus may be austerity-themed, but it's a sensual and intellectual feast.

With:
Crista Alfaiate, Chico Chapas, Luísa Cruz, Gonçalo Waddington, Joana de Verona, Teresa Madruga, Joao Pedro Benard, Jing Jing Guo, Carloto Cotta, Adriano Luz, Americo Silva, Rogerio Samora, Fernanda Loureiro. (Portuguese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3284178/

If “The Restless One” seemed the perfect title for the first part of Miguel Gomes’s opulently undisciplined opus “Arabian Nights” — signaling its tangled, distracted nesting of stories within stories — “desolate” is hardly the adjective for its fertile, often uproarious middle section. It does, however, aptly indicate a certain narrative calming: Only three tales are told here by the project’s wily mythical narrator Scheherazade, though one in particular sprawls and subdivides itself in such alluringly vine-like fashion that viewers will hardly notice 133 minutes ticking by. The crushing social impact of Portugal’s recent austerity policies remains the running theme here, though “Volume 2” features less stinging rhetoric than its predecessor, as whimsical satire gradually segues into observational tragicomedy. It remains to be seen on what note Gomes chooses to end his mammoth undertaking, but it’s already among the most stirring, stimulating works at this year’s Cannes fest. 

However adventurous arthouse distributors and exhibitors choose to screen this commercially prickly curiosity, the subtextual continuity between the first two volumes already suggests the three parts would benefit from being kept in close proximity to one another. The greatest tactical challenge of the release may lie in persuading auds overwhelmed by the structural density and rampantly eccentric lyricism of Gomes’s opening salvo to stick around for the less invitingly titled “The Desolate One.” Yet it emerges, unpredictably enough, as the more streamlined (“straightforward” is not a word in this filmmaker’s lexicon) and arguably more entertaining chapter. After facing such a playful sort of desolation, few are likely to resist the titular promise of triptych closer “The Enchanted One.”

There’s no recap here of the staggered framing device established at some length in the first volume: Any viewers tuning in at this point will need to use their powers of lateral thinking to determine why legendary Arabian queen Scheherazade (voiced again with arch irony and an audible twinkle by Crista Alfaiate) is saving her own life, one night at a time, by telling stories of sociopolitical dishevelment in 21st-century Portugal. For those accustomed to Gomes’s premise, the narration device is by this point wholly unobtrusive; the blending of cultural contexts only serves to drive home the point that certain social iniquities and inequalities have been historically recycled across the centuries.

Popular on Variety

Her first tale in this installment, the unbeatably titled “Chronicle of the Escape of Simao ‘Without Bowels,'” centers on the failings of municipal law and order in the country, as an escaped rural murderer somehow becomes a local hero for managing to swindle the authorities. Opening with gliding shots of a police drone — as clear a symbol as any of an invasive establishment — whirring over a scrubby, shrubby stretch of isolated grassland, d.p. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s own camera eventually closes in on elderly fugitive Simao (Chico Chapas), whose “Without Bowels” nickname stems from his lifelong skinniness. On the run after killing four women, including his wife and daughter, Simao enlivens his wilderness hideout with gluttonous hallucinations of prostitutes and partridge banquets. Even crimes as extreme as his, says Scheherazade, can be indirectly attributed to economic starvation: “Evil is only a severe tendency of selfishness.”

Following this mordant but surprisingly jaunty fable, Gomes deepens his absurdist satirical register for “The Tears of the Judge,” a hilarious burlesque set in an al fresco courtroom where the people and the judicial system are shown to desert each other with equal irresponsibility. Presiding over a lunatic case involving the theft of 13 cows that expands to involve a corresponding baker’s dozen of Chinese mail-order brides, a genie and a machete-wielding human lie detector, a stern judge (Luisa Cruz, in a wonderful comic turn of escalating raggedness) overhears a farcical series of buck-passing testimonies, until arriving at a none-too-diplomatic abandonment of a conclusion. This heightened sequence is bookended with more oblique scenes of the judge’s daughter, having recently lost her virginity to a man of her mother’s choosing, feigning domestic servitude before she, too, passes on the job she has undertaken. It’s an episode that gives a saucy reproval to archaic gender and racial hierarchies still present in modern European society.

The third and final tale, “The Owners of Dixie,” is the most elaborately structured, unfolding over two parts — the first of which is itself formally bisected — as it follows the perspective of a bedraggled Maltese poodle, Dixie, as she is shuttled between multiple owners in the same working-class suburban housing estate. (Deferment of responsibility, at a range of social levels, may be seen as a uniting concern of “The Desolate Ones.”) It’s also the section that will most please admirers of Gomes who cottoned onto his work via the wistful, deadpan romanticism of his 2012 feature “Tabu.”

As the luckless, indiscriminately loving mutt is passed from one household to another in the dingy corridors of the recession-stricken estate, she may or not observe that — to twist a line from Tolstoy — every unhappy apartment is unhappy in its own way. “Tears are contagious,” the judge observed in the previous chapter, and so it holds here: Loneliness and pessimism spread among the residents even before the rise in eviction notices (one a week, we are told, with immigrant families most adversely affected) further dampens the mood of the community. Gomes’ depiction of this growing economic paranoia is hardly as grim as it sounds: There’s hope, humor and, finally, a measure of supernatural possibility in his view of what turns out to be a dog’s life for more than just the resilient hand-me-down pet at the story’s center.

“The Desolate One” maintains the technical majesty of this intimate epic’s first volume. Shooting in sun-dried hues on gorgeously textured Kodak film, Mukdeeprom’s lensing once more finds a kind of dynamism in serenity — and beauty in dilapidation, as the poky apartments of the final section are swathed in fifty shades of smoke. Music is more judiciously applied here than in “The Restless One,” though Gomes once more proves himself a master of the unlikely, emotionally resonant pop selection: Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” has never sounded more plaintive than it does wafting into the night from an austerity-tightened high-rise window.

Film Review: 'Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 18, 2015. Running time: 133 MIN. (Original title: “As mil e uma noites — Volume 2, O desolado")

Production: (Portugal-France-Germany-Switzerland) An O Som e a Furia presentation of an O Som e a Furia, Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Prod., Arte France Cinema, Arte/ZDF, RTP, Agat Films, RTS-SRG SSR production. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Luis Urban, Sandro Aguilar, Thomas Ordonneau, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Elena Tatti, Thierry Spicher, Elodie Brunner. Executive producer, Luis Urbano. Co-producers, Olivier Pere, Remi Burah, Meinholf Zurhorst, Alexander Bohr, Nuno Vaz, Francoise Mayor, Sophie Sallin, Sven Waelti, Gregory Catella, Robert Guediguian, Patrick Sobelman, Marc Bordure, Michel Merkt.

Crew: Directed by Miguel Gomes. Screenplay, Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro. Camera (color, 16-t0-35mm, widescreen), Sayombhu Mukdeeprom; editors, Churro, Gomes, Pedro Filipe Marques; production designers, Bruno Duarte, Artur Pinheiro; costume designers, Silvia Grabowski, Lucha D’Orey; sound, Vasco Pimentel; supervising sound editor, Miguel Martins; assistant director, Bruno Lourenco.

With: Crista Alfaiate, Chico Chapas, Luísa Cruz, Gonçalo Waddington, Joana de Verona, Teresa Madruga, Joao Pedro Benard, Jing Jing Guo, Carloto Cotta, Adriano Luz, Americo Silva, Rogerio Samora, Fernanda Loureiro. (Portuguese dialogue)

More Film

  • The Cold Blue

    Erik Nelson Wants to Preserve the Past With 'The Cold Blue' World War II Documentary

    Erik Nelson describes his documentary “The Cold Blue” as “the garage band of movies” — he didn’t have the large team or crew other documentary contenders have. “The Cold Blue” is a World War II documentary that looks at raids and B-17 bombing missions that took place during the war. Nelson’s team looked at 34 [...]

  • Ray Manzarek

    Film News Roundup: Concert-Documentary 'The Doors: Break on Thru' Set for February

    In today’s film news roundup, one-night showings of a Ray Manzarek tribute and the season premiere of “Doctor Who” have been set for 2020, and the MPAA hires a copyright expert. ONE-NIGHT SHOWINGS The Doors and Trafalgar Releasing are teaming on the worldwide Feb. 12 release of “The Doors: Break on Thru – A Celebration [...]

  • Richard Jewell

    Warner Bros. Hits Back at Atlanta Paper Over 'Richard Jewell' Legal Threat

    Warner Bros. is standing behind “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood drama that is the source of controversy over its portrayal of a female journalist trading sex for scoops. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a legal threat to the filmmakers on Monday asking them to include a disclaimer noting that the film took dramatic license. In a [...]

  • The Irishman

    'Captain Marvel,' 'The Irishman,' Other Original Scores to Miss Out on Oscar Nominations

    The Regina Spektor song from “Bombshell” and at least six major scores including “The Two Popes” and “The Irishman” won’t be on Oscar’s music shortlists when they are announced next week. That’s because none of them are on the official Academy eligibility lists from which music-branch members are now voting. Preliminary voting ends tomorrow afternoon, [...]

  • Golden Globes Zodiac signs

    Golden Globes Nominees as Zodiac Signs

    The Golden Globes nominees aren’t the only stars of awards season. Variety turned to astrology to assign Zodiac signs to this year’s nominees. Some selections required a little more nuance — Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” is a Virgo with a prominent Sagittarius rising and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a Sagittarius that wishes it were a [...]

  • Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays one

    How Production Designer Jade Healy Recreated the Beautiful Neighborhood of Mister Rogers

    Production designer Jade Healy is doing double duty this awards season. For one, her work can be seen in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” There, she created a world of angst and individuality, making use of negative space as a couple reaches the end of their relationship. In Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content