It’s common, in cities that play host to major film festivals, for locals to attend less out of interest in any particular film than because a film premiere seems in general an attractive cultural event — much in the way an aspiring highbrow might “go to the opera” without caring which opera it happens to be. As a consequence even a program’s most radical films might enjoy a large audience. So it was last week at the 50th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, in the mountains of the Czech Republic, when a full house of 300 showed up to delight in the first volume of Arabian Nights, the three-part, 381-minute Portuguese epic by Miguel Gomes. I gather few present knew in advance what they were getting into. After twenty minutes people around me began to flee. By the end I was one of perhaps 35 still there — held rapt till the last second by a film of abundant wit and generous heart.
Those first twenty minutes can seem trying if you suspect that their obscurity and languor are a glimpse of the 100 minutes still to come in volume one. They find Gomes himself on screen, moping in self-professed anguish: He wants to make another movie, he explains, but the austerity measures that have beleaguered Portugal loom too large, eclipsing more frivolous subjects. But how do you make a film that addresses with nuance and urgency a national economic crisis? Gomes says that he doesn’t know. Instead he absconds, running from the set like a madman as his camera crew hastily follows.
From then on, between musings on the filmmaking process and his unbudging creative paralysis, Gomes offers snatches of work that was never meant to be: Footage from an unfinished documentary on a countryside wasp plague is set against interviews with workers laid off from the Viana do Castelo shipyards, a parallel Gomes insists in voiceover is meaningful — even if he can’t be sure how or why.
The confusion that governs this first act proves productive. It establishes, for him and for us, the need for storytelling of a more conventional sort: Captured at last by his camera crew and, naturally enough, sentenced to death for having abandoned them, Gomes endeavors to absolve himself by his only available means — by spinning a yarn so compelling that it will quell their urge to kill him. And so the movie proper begins. We are introduced to the immortal Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), gliding along sun-dappled water in a modern-day motorboat, as pop music blares and the opening titles crawl in a sequence of invigorating bliss. Scheherazade, as in the folk tales, is both character and framing device, doomed to tell stories for a thousand and one nights in order to postpone her execution at the hands of her husband the king. After minute 25 or so, these stories become the episodic narrative of the rest of the film.
Gomes is quick to distance himself from the obligations implied by taking on such monumental source material. He includes a title card to the point: “This film is not an adaptation of ARABIAN NIGHTS despite drawing on its structure,” and, indeed, the stories themselves have been conceived with ingenuity and singular verve. The first, which springs forth at about the 35-minute mark, is “The Men With Hard-Ons,” whose lively, ingratiating manner will seem a kind of olive branch to anyone impatient with those stage-setting early scenes. This broad, uproarious satirical short concerns a group of European political emissaries descending on Portugal with economy-crippling demands — and whose ruthlessness on the world stage turns out to be a manifestation of their impotence in bed. This is quite the reckoning. It’s as though Gomes, angry but hoping to be fair-minded, opted to begin with his nastiest barbs before moving on.
“The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire” is the next up, and it’s a bargain as two tales in one. In the first a small-town judge must decide whether to sentence to beheading a local woman’s obstreperous rooster, accused of keeping the neighbors up with crowing at all hours; called upon to defend himself, the rooster — who of course can communicate with the judge telepathically — narrates the story of his plea, in which a lovesick young girl sets forest fires every night in a bid for the affection of her beau. (The rooster claims his all-night crowing was a failed attempt to warn others of the fires; he is acquitted for his efforts.) The same stretch also finds time for the exploits of an ancient Chinese emperor and a group of overworked volunteer firefighters. It can be dizzying just to keep up.
The stories have an almost dreamlike sweep and imaginative energy. That certainly keeps things spirited: Over its six-and-a-half-hour running time, the film never exhausts its exuberance. More extraordinary still is the emotional depth Gomes is able to find. A simple exchange by text message toward the end of “The Cockerel and the Fire” reduced me, with its understated pathos, to tears — and that’s in a story told by a talking chicken. Volume two, which I saw at a second screening, is even richer on this front. “The Tears of the Judge,” a long, elaborate sequence that details an unconventional trial at which every attending onlooker proves culpable in the crime, is especially stirring and strange, proceeding with a nightmare logic and, in contrast to the vigor of the first episode, a pleasingly somnambulant mood.
Arabian Nights reaches a crest of sorts with “The Owners of Dixie,” the last of volume two’s three long stories and a whopping punch to the gut. Its subjects are death, poverty, and decay in an unglamorous apartment complex hit hard by austerity. In its cross-section view of the indignities bequeathed by the government to the poor, it’s justly despairing. In a report from its premiere at Cannes this May for Mubi, critic Danny Kasman calls this “the lightest” of the trilogy’s many episodes — and, counterintuitive though that might seem, he is correct: The story’s prevailing register is a kind of tenacious, enduring joy, the misery of life be damned. I credit Dixie himself with the spirit. This shaggy Maltese poodle, the luckless hero of the episode, finds himself passed from one owner to another as each in turn proves incapable of taking care of him. (Guy Lodge, writing in Variety, identifies the “deferment of responsibility” as the film’s “uniting concern,” a well-observed thought.) Still Dixie loves, and hopes, and tries his best to give joy. And in the yapping indefatigability of this creature Gomes locates the very soul of his devastated nation.
Scheherazade herself opens the third and final volume. Consigned forever to the bedroom of the king, our storyteller reflects on all the people she’ll never meet and the stories she’ll never hear: revered divers, enigmatic treasure-hunters, lovers with paramours all across the world. Of course, Gomes recognizes here the limitations of his project’s ambitious sprawl, which even at 30 times the length could never voice definitively the needs of the people he wishes to represent. This concession may account for the relative placidity of volume three. Its central story, the 80-minute “Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches,” seems in its reserved style to deliberately undermine expectations of a grand finale, drawing the gargantuan Arabian Nights to a close with an appropriately nontraditional denouement.
This is a film about the necessity of storytelling, but it is also one about the frustrations inherent in the storytelling form — and frustration is what many will feel, even, or perhaps especially, after this much time invested. (A handful of those who’d made it through more than six hours of the film unceremoniously walked out with only twenty minutes left to go.) Arabian Nights is an attempt to reckon with a crisis that is quite beyond it; any sense of resolution, in the conventional sense, would have been a betrayal of the truth. This is a masterpiece not because it culminates in some redemptive catharsis or clinching argument for social change, but because, by disavowing such futile ends, it meets the mess of life in its own clear and true terms.
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