Director: Miguel Gomes.
Starring: Crista Alfaiate. Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland 2015. 132 mins. Portuguese with English subtitles.
“The wickedness of evil men is often regarded as an epic thing, driven by hidden and devilish powers.”
Volume 2 of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ trilogy sees our protagonist Scheherazade relegated to the role of narrator (but do not fret, she’ll be back in Volume 3). This film is more concerned with guilt and collective responsibility than Volume 1 was, featuring only three tales from our creative-thought-process Princess, who we assume is off-screen fighting for her life through the power of storytelling, in some baroque Portuguese castle, on the edge of a very precarious-looking cliff somewhere sunny. And if you’re just joining the trilogy now, having missed Volume 1 last week, don’t worry. Gomes said, when I interviewed him for Take One: “I have the sensation that this film has a connection with the viewer, such that you can invent your own rules for watching it. You have three films. You can decide in which order and with what time period between the volumes you want to see them.”
The first story, Simão ‘Without Bowels’, concerns Simão (Chico Chapas) – so called because no matter how much he eats, he never puts on any weight. He’s on the run in the sun-drenched Portuguese countryside for murdering his wife and children. Police drones scour the landscape in scenes that are a mash-up of Ridley Scott’s dystopian epic Blade Runner and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. Gomes’ DOP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, manages to capture the grainy pastoral beauty of rural Portugal in some deliciously paced wide shots of hillsides and run-down farm buildings. Simão possesses the same qualities as the grandmother in Volume 1, and can seemingly transport himself from one location to another. One gets the feeling that the magical- realist streak exerts itself whenever it feels like a scene is becoming a bit too documentary in style for Gomes’ liking.
Next up is The Tears Of The Judge, the story of a weary Judge (Luísa Cruz) and her litany of guilty members of the community, all passing on their guilt to the next person. Played out like a high- school play, in a mixture of Judge Judy and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the delegation of guilt from one person to the next is tragi-comic to the max – showing just how easy it is to place the blame on your neighbours when your luck has run out. Of note in this story must surely be the costume design of Lucha d’Orey and Silvia Grabowski. We are presented with the ghost of a cow, recounting the sad tale of its demise by a beautiful olive tree – the cow is pantomime, mâché and Greek tragedy all rolled into one. Whilst the realisation of the Judge’s lie detector, ‘furious machete man’ – quite literally a man with a big sword – is both humorous and threatening at the same time.
Rounding off Volume 2, we have The Owners Of Dixie, the story responsible for the trilogy’s win of the coveted Palme Dog award at the 68th Cannes Film Festival last year (presented by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw). Dixie, the little white Maltese or Bolognese dog in question, is played by Lucky, one of the most famous acting dogs in the Spanish film industry. His tale revolves around a tower-block estate, something apparently quite rare in Portuguese urban landscapes. As in George Perec’s 1978 novel, Life A User’s Manual, we move between different residents of the tower block, discovering each of their stories through the main tale of Dixie. This narrative structure mirrors that of Arabian Nights overall, whereby the main story is of Scheherazade, but there are the smaller stories she tells in order to keep alive. Amongst his adventures, Dixie discovers his ghost-dog predecessor (also named Dixie) living behind some flowerpots on the first floor of the apartment block. It’s such light-hearted moments of playful joy that help to elevate Gomes’ work from pure social commentary on the state of contemporary Portugal, into something serious yet more whimsical than the likes of films by Ken Loach and Frederick Wiseman. Such paradoxes of filmmaking styles is one of Gomes’ strengths, and he uses it to full advantage in this fascinating film.
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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