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Arabian Nights: Volume 1- The Restless One
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by Jay Seaver

"A very good start, and good on its own."
4 stars

The best way to review Miguel Gomes's three-part "Arabian Nights" anthology is probably all at once, rather than writing about the first film before watching the second. I am currently trying that anyway, not knowing if characters will recur or if anything beyond the broad and explicitly stated themes will connect what is, at least in my city, being presented as three separate features, very much a part of the potential audience trying the first before deciding whether or not to shell out for the other two. I'll be doing so; the first installment may not yet strike me as brilliant, but it is earnest and consistently interesting.

This one breaks down into four segments of roughly a half-hour each, with the first a sort of author's introduction as Gomes sets the scene - not of a long-ago time in Baghdad, but of Portugal in 2013 and 2014, where an already crippling recession and the insisted-upon austerity measures are bleeding working people dry. In Viana do Castelo, the shipyard that has long been the city's industrial heart is closing and an invasive species of wasps is destroying the local honeybee population, with one enterprising man working with the fire department to destroy the wasps' nests. Gomes appears both before the camera and as narrator, despondently trying to make connections, whether between these two local events or between his desires to tell fantastic stories and also represent the unhappy reality of his country. Unable to do so, he flees, setting himself up as his anthology's Scheherazade when the crew tracks him down. It's a quiet, sly way to establish his solidly real-world concerns while setting up a satiric but whimsical tone, though done aptly enough not to overpower the simple documentary pleasures of the opening: A slow pan across the docks as various unseen narrators describe how they started there and how the way of life disappeared. That discussion overlaps with the one about wasp eradication like radio stations on competing frequencies, eventually giving way to Gomes's discussion of austerity. It's informative, but casual, and against imagery that goes from beautiful to absurd.

After a brief stop to consider just how one storyteller was able to tell so many tales in the original Arabian Nights (it involved judiciously-placed cliffhangers and a large writers' room), we are treated to the "Tale of the Men with Hard-ons", and is not nearly as delightfully tacky as the title makes it sound. Picking up the theme of enforced austerity, it involves a number of bankers meeting with government officials and other locals, being offered a miracle impotence cure by a local wizard, and balking at the price he demands when their erections just won't quit. There are some funny bits during the opening scenes of negotiation - a businessman sighing over how his confrontations with his union counterpart no longer feature the same passion and violence, translation not just between Portuguese and English, but rude and obsequious, that sort of thing. But the broad jokes that you'd expect from the priapism never quite materialize; Gomes and his co-writers never even seem to milk discomfort out of the only woman at the negotiating table. Perhaps the point is that these men talk about their massive endowments despite not having the comedic bulges to match their boasting, but that seems like rather more subtle a joke than the situation merits.

The next story, "The Tale of the Cockerel and the Fire", is perhaps the film's strongest, though its connections to the financial troubles are the weakest (politicians call upon the characters, who ultimately show disdain for the whole process). The cockerel of the title has a habit of crowing well before dawn, and a neighbor petitions to have it killed. She refuses, and it eventually goes to a judge, which leads to even stranger things. It's a nifty little story that takes amusing turns, with a whimsical sub-story where the points of a potentially disastrous love triangle are portrayed by kids. It's a story told in almost casual fashion, with makes the fact that Gomes is stacking odd forms of storytelling on top of each other all the more impressive.

The final story in this volume is "The Tale of the Swim of the Magnificents", which sees the film come something close to full-circle in a couple of ways: First, I believe its main character Luis (Adriano Luz) is the union representative from "Men with Hard-ons", although here he is a swim teacher who is also organizing the swim of the title (a January 1st dip in the ocean) with his assistant Maria (Crista Alfaiate). He is also wearing a monitor for his doctors and telling the story of his day. Even if I'm wrong about the character being reused, it's interesting that Gomes gets back to confronting the effects of this economic malaise on common people head-on, as three of the "magnificents" tell their stories to Luis and therefore us, with a common thread of how, once things go bad in one way, everything seems to start slipping out of one's control. The directness of this approach makes an interesting contrast the the developing friction and friendship between Luis and Maria, as well as the more fantastic elements (mostly involving a whale, including one bit that seems so underused that it seems like it simply must be revisited later on). It's the most perfect of cushions on Gomes's pleading for a little kindness and understanding, and the fact that some things can go on even without hot chocolate and t-shirts gives the film a chance to finish on a hopeful note.

When all of these elements are taken together, it's easy to note certain through-lines, and not just the ever-present economic malaise. The strongest, I think, is his fascination with stories and story-telling; every segment in this film has somebody telling a story, embedding this direct, verbal communication within the film, with the implication that those parts of the story are true, even if the rest is fanciful. Still, he's also committed to making sure that what we see on-screen is arresting without being distracting, and to that end gets fantastic work from Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Gomes and Mukdeeprom leave artifacts of shooting on film in (or, perhaps, create them if this was shot digitally), and it almost seems to serve a double purpose, giving the images a warmth in how things like fire and gray skies are captured while implying that they as filmmakers don't have access to the newest, most perfect equipment in this environment.

Though I cannot say that I truly love this take on "Arabian Nights" after the first volume, I do find that it grows richer on further examination. If nothing else, it's the sort of first installment that convinces one that the subsequent episodes are probably worth some attention, and which could easily grow in stature depending how they turn out.

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originally posted: 01/17/16 01:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 New York Film Festival For more in the 2015 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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