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.
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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.