Towards the end of Miguel Gomes’s latest film, “Arabian Nights”, there’s a birdsong competition in Lisbon. It is at once real and surreal. Rugged men cradle their finches and place them in veiled cages, like draped doll’s-house beds. Pretty chaos ensues as the birds tweet, chirrup and trill, trying to outdo one another. And then one cage goes silent. Gently unwrapping it, the owner finds his bird dead on the floor: it sang until its heart burst.
With “Arabian Nights”, has Gomes suffered the same fate? Filmed in three parts, with a total running time of over six hours, it opens with Gomes himself, sitting with his camera crew, slouched, eyes down, as if his new project is too much for him. Indeed, he says just that, before getting to his feet, wandering a few steps, then making a wild-eyed run for it. He defers to Scheherazade, giving his film its conceit. To avoid being killed by her husband, the Sultan, every evening she tells a story, holding him rapt until the sun rises and his murderous mood subsides. Each night, another tale, only here they are vignettes of modern-day Portugal during the financial crisis.
The film shows a country suffering from unemployment, emigration and malaise, but contorts its stories as if in a hall of mirrors. While writing the script, Gomes had a team of journalists researching real reports from the Portuguese press, panning for inspiration. Often a single, poetic fragment was all he needed – a judge’s tears upon sentencing a destitute man to prison, or a couple’s suicide pact in a forgotten tower block – and from these he spun his tales. He melds fact and fiction seamlessly, as he slips from docudrama to flights of fancy, from satire to allegory. One story, “The Three Magnificents”, begins in biblical fashion in the lamp-lit bowels of a whale, before showing frank, documentary-style interviews with three workers who have been laid off . It then returns to the whale – only this time it is beached and then explodes. The whole story has a labyrinthine structure, and no destination in mind.
For all its complexities, “Arabian Nights” retains the qualities that have brought Gomes acclaim for his two previous films, “Our Beloved Month of August” and “Tabu”. It has an air of sweet melancholy and deadpan romanticism, and mixes the rich, sun-dried hues of Baghdad with the grainy dilapidation of Lisbon. It has a raconteur’s voiceover, only loosely coupled to what you see, as when Scheherazade laments her lot while the camera probes a shipwreck’s wafting seaweed and startled squid. And there’s a playful theatricality when the same actors reappear in different roles. Chico Chapas appears as himself in Volume 1; as Simão “No Guts”, an escaped murderer who becomes a local hero, in Volume 2; and as a bird enthusiast in Volume 3. And it has animals: surly camels, talking roosters, cherished finches. It might well be too much, but its very excesses are a flamboyant cinematic rebuttal of austerity. Even after six hours, there is no closure. But this may be Gomes’s point — the suffering goes on.
Arabian Nights Released in America on December 4th