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Arabian Nights: Volume 3, the Enchanted One
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by Jay Seaver

"An interesting finale, if you've like what came before. And finches."
4 stars

Miguel Gomes seemingly sets out to end his "Arabian Tales" trilogy with a whimper, as there are long, long stretches of this movie where nothing really happens and the narrative captions emphasize that the story is not moving forward at all. That the movie never actually bored me out of my mind suggests that his talents as a filmmaker outstrip his talents as a troll, and there's something kind of impressive about that.

This time around, the film has the appearance of an actual adaptation of 1001 Arabian Nights despite the captions' insistence that it simply borrows the structure, opening with a middle-eastern girl dancing and a wealthy older man mistaking her for someone else. He is the father of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), who on the 515th day of her marriage to the vizier is growing weary of trying to push her decapitation (and his moving on to the rest of Bagdad's women in the original marry/screw/kill scenario). She spends the day out in the countryside, meeting the people and her father, and tapping a genie of the wind, before returning to her duty. It's a sweet story with the lovely Crista Alfaiate giving a nice performance as this woman for whom beauty a and charm are matters of duty, though she seems more resigned than bitter. Gomes does interesting things with his storytelling, such as superimposing the end of one scene over the beginning of another, notably allowing the dancer to become a ghost haunting Scheherazade's father. The setting eventually becomes less Bagdad in ancient times and more present day Portugal, and Gomes has fun with the juxtapositions. Given that he placed himself in the position of Scheherazade in the first film, one can't help but wonder what his thinking was with this segment - he spends a lot of time ruminating on how storytellers may create adventures in works they do not always experience directly, but he also presents a relatively tranquil image of the world outside, perhaps implying that the government's austerity and lack of concerns for the country's people cannot diminish the simple pleasures that people might take from each other and the beauty around them.

Eventually, though, she must return to the vizier, where she begins the tale of "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches". It looks at a small community near the Lisbon airport where focus have been trapped and trained to remember various calls ever since soldiers learned this abroad during World War I. Gomes introduces the audience to this practice and many of the neighborhood's enthusiasts, often having information about them and their birds pop up as captions. What he does not do, however, is build much of a story; it's like an observational documentary sort that stretches out for at least half of the film's 125-minute running time. T the narrative captions mention Scheherazade stopping at dawn and restarting at nightfall often enough that this goes on for weeks, enough to make one wonder how she has not been beheaded yet, as this is what the vizier does when a woman does not hold his ingest.

On the other hand, one does kind of understand, as this segment is not nearly as boring as it should be. Gomes displays no interest whatsoever in building a plot out of this material, but he offers up all the materials a viewer (or listener) would need to construct stories of their own: There are bunches of characters with intriguing backstory, facts about finches and their training, a look at the setting that gives it a real sense of place, and footage of a competition that is all but incomprehensible to an outsider but is as a result tremendously malleable. I suspect much of it is either documentary material or performed by non-actors, with Gomes and his co-editors doping yeoman's work to shape what they have into something that does not lead to actual frustration or open revolt in the audience even though at some point viewers have to connect it to the framing story where Scheherazade is obviously stringing her audience along, a fairly narrow path to navigate.

Buried within this is another story, "Tale of the Hot Forest", in which a Chinese student (Guo Jing Jing) describes her time in Portugal and the various situations she found herself in. The audience never actually sees her; indeed, all that's on-screen is video of a November 2013 confrontation between two police forces - one striking and the other attempting to keep order - which plays a part in her story and was occasionally adjacent to the previous one. It's an interesting choice, giving Gomes a chance to give Lin Nuan a bigger canvas than some of the other characters (when you're just using words, there's no reason not to have your narrator become a Contessa's personal companion in her mansion) but also contrasting how an individual's human-scale dilemmas contrast with the crowd scenes that make the news. It also underscores how changeable people can be, as Lin's tale of abandonment perhaps echoes how chips go from fighting to embracing their proposing brother officers.

Looking at the trilogy as a whole, it's interesting to see how interconnectivity becomes more prominent as it goes along. The first film presented very discrete stories, clearly looking at the effects of the economic collapse on individuals and families; the second presents larger social networks. Here, everything bleeds into everything else, from the first super-imposed image on: The past becomes the present, one story spins off from another, and the finch trappers include both a character from the second film and an actor who played a character in a different segment. Fiction and documentary are thoroughly intermingled. The film isn't entirely successful as it gets out to this perspective, as it starts playing games with the audience that are far more entertaining to Gomes than the people watching.

There's a part of me that suspects Gomes made the whole six-plus-hour trilogy in order to get more people to see the chaffinch material he found interesting than might otherwise have done so (sure, a massive metafictional combination of fantasy and political protest is a hard sell, but maybe not to the extent that an hour on finch-trapping would be). "The Enchanted One" is certainly good enough not to quit on the series after two entries, and it's a solid part of the trilogy, though you'd have to be rather interested in finches to watch it on its own.

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originally posted: 01/20/16 11:12:58
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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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