Director: Miguel Gomes.
Starring: Crista Alfaiate. Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland 2015. 125 mins. Portuguese with English subtitles.
“I’m happy… I’m sad… I’m outraged.”
The voice of a shipbuilder whose job is at risk from the plummeting price of steel on the world markets (sound familiar to UK ears?) is one of many in the first instalment of renowned Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy. The brilliance of Gomes’s magnum opus is that it makes you ask yourself: why aren’t there more epic, magical realist/documentary hybrid films about the age of European austerity that followed the financial crash of 2008?
Screened to great critical acclaim in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs strand at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival, Volume 1 – The Restless One establishes the format of the trilogy, which borrows loosely from The Arabian Nights tales. Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) tells stories to keep herself alive every night. But in Gomes’s film, the tales she tells are contemporary accounts of everyday Portugal, meticulously collected over the course of a year from the regional newspaper archives of the country by Gomes’s research team.
There’s the tale of a noisy cockerel threatened with execution by angry neighbours; a union leader who is desperate to organise his union’s annual dip in the ocean, despite a total lack of any funds; and a gang of ruthless economists who descend upon the Portuguese government to impose their desired austerity, only to encounter a mysterious wizard-like traveller on the side of a road.
The film’s intoxicating mix of documentary and magical realism is perhaps closest in style to Mexican director Carlos Reygadas Barguín’s Post Tenebras Lux and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. A grandmother is telling her grandchildren about neighbours always being nosy and, all of a sudden, the grandmother evaporates into thin air.
Director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, shooting on grainy, textured 35mm, worked on Uncle Boonmee too, so the similar visual aesthetics of the films can be attributed to his steady hand and neat eye for a memorable shot.
In an interview I conducted with Gomes for Take One, the director stated: “Let’s say that in general I’m more attached to a cinema that tries not to replicate the real world and life.” Arabian Nights: Volume 1 – The Restless One looks at the real world, finds elements it doesn’t like, and plays with it in the unique manner that quality, original cinema can, and should, do. Give it time to settle into your consciousness and before too long it’ll be in your top ten films of the year. Cinema has never been so big but so focused on such idiosyncratic microcosms of society as in Gomes’s motion-picture masterpiece.
Arabian Nights: Volume 1 – The Restless One (15) Tuesday 10 May
Arabian Nights: Volume 2- The Desolate One (15) Tuesday 17 May
Arabian Nights Volume 3 – The Enchanted One (15) Tuesday 24 May
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