Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s triptych (the three parts open on consecutive weeks in the UK) includes an on-screen declaration that what we are about to see is not an adaptation of the book Arabian Nights. Instead, it’s a collection of “stories, characters and places” inspired by “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014” and which draw upon the structure of the tales of Scheherazade.
Faced with the imminent closure of the Viana do Castelo shipyard (an event he cannot quite connect to the extermination of wasps that are endangering native bees) and unable to reconcile the miserable plight of his country with the desire to make a “fine film, filled with wonderful, seductive stories”, Gomes runs away from the set of his own movie. Pursued by his crew, the director attempts to stave off execution for abandoning his post by embarking upon a string of dazzling stories. In Volume One we have a tale of men with magical hard-ons wrestling with issues of financial flaccidity; the story of The Cockerel and the Fire, in which a bird accused of crowing too early becomes a political football and a broken heart causes text message-inspired conflagrations; and The Swim of the Magnificents, in which a washed-up whale rots explosively upon a beach while we listen to what appear to be authentic stories of lost jobs, savings, homes and worse.
Previously best known for the more ordered Tabu, Gomes describes his Arabian Nights as both portraying and emerging from a “chaotic situation”, generating an anarchic energy that is by turns satirical, elegiac and angry. Arresting cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who worked such wonders on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, adds depth to the craziness, the use of 16mm and 35mm film stock lending texture and a sense of history to the contemporary absurdities. Roll on Volume Two.