A mischievous self-awareness runs throughout the work and within ten minutes of The Restless One, Gomes runs away from his own set after contemplating the impossibility of creating a film which is both fantastical and militant. But this is exactly what Gomes does, using the stories-within-stories structure of Arabian Nights to tell a number of bizarre tales which all respond to the contemporary hardships of Portugal. The very first story, The Men with Hard-ons, again encapsulates Gomes' irreverent, playful spirit. The sequence follows a group of impotent, pro-austerity politicians who discover a cure for their erectile dysfunction - this is the trilogy's most overtly humorous and allegorically simplistic passage. In contrast, The Restless One's concluding tale, The Swim of the Magnificents, provides a naturalistic study of real people who've been tragically damaged by austerity measures in Portugal. Their heart-breaking testimonies provide a welcome sombreness amidst the rest of the madcap craziness.
The Desolate One provides two of the triptych's strongest stories. In The Tears of a Judge, a strict magistrate is slowly broken down as her string of witnesses (including a deaf woman, a gang of masked demons and a talking cow) continually push the blame onto someone else for their own wrong-doings. It's a brilliantly choreographed and darkly comical scene which portrays a real sense of helplessness and group culpability in the face of this 'grotesque chain of evil, stupidity and despair'. Living up to its title The Desolate One's final story The Owners of Dixie is the most poignant section of the trilogy. A stray dog called Dixie regularly switches owners inside a single tower block allowing the touching tribulations of a couple of drug addicts and an ailing elderly couple to become uncovered. These intimate, thought-provoking encounters tragically sketch how the social services have failed the most vulnerable people in Portugal and bring home the harsh reality of Portugal's predicament.
The Enchanted One is by far the weakest of the three. Whereas on-screen intertitles are used sparingly in the previous instalments, here they are exhausted and Gomes' reliance on them often feels lazy. This chapter isn’t tuned into the same political and darkly comical agenda of the previous two and the monotonous, over-long The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches, which documents a working-class bird-trapping community, is a disappointing low-point on which to bow out on.
Arabian Nights' erratic narrative, leisurely pacing and hefty run time will definitely test some film-goer’s patience, but if you succumb to its absurd delights you'll be rewarded with an array of darkly humorous, sharply critical and genuinely heartfelt stories.
ARABIAN NIGHTS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MIGUEL GOMES / SCREENPLAY: TELMMO CHURRO, MIGUEL GOMES, MARIANA RICARDO / STARRING: CRISTA ALFAIATE, DINARTE BRANCO, CARLOTO COTTA, ADRIANO LUZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW