By Adam Cook
Among the most exciting films to look forward to at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year is Arabian Nights. Directed by Miguel Gomes, the Portuguese auteur who earned acclaim with his previous features Our Beloved Month of August (2008) and Tabu (2011), this mega-ambitious work is composed of three individual films totaling over six hours (Titled, sequentially: The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One). Inspired by the famous collection of folk tales, Arabian Nights does not adapt this source material, but borrows its structure, allowing Gomes to string together a collection of stories that vary in tone, mood, and style, and range from documentary to fiction and somewhere in between—but all connect with themes concerning present-day Portugal’s economic disparity.
Gomes hired reporters to research different stories around the country on which to base the film’s chapters. The results are occasionally quite humorous and fun, but underlying them are deep concerns about the fledgling state of this struggling nation. In translating a harrowing reality into fiction, Arabian Nights is both a testament to the power of storytelling, and a politically charged act of solidarity.
As the beautiful Scheherazade spins tales to stave off her murderous king husband, the film seamlessly moves from satire, to poetry, to documentary—the fabric of its differing parts interwoven by Miguel Gomes’s cinematic fluency. One sobering chapter is dedicated to lengthy, uncut interviews with citizens recalling their unemployment woes, together creating a portrait of the underclass majority’s futility and frustration. But within the playfulness of the film lies hope, as we move from chapters like that to a moving and highly amusing section in the second film in which the ownership of a dog names Dixie passes ends in a working class apartment building, enabling the viewer to encounter various habitants and anecdotes therein. The ensuing poppy musical cues and spontaneity liberate Arabian Nights from the seriousness of its concerns while still squarely focusing on them. In The Enchanted One, the third volume of the trilogy, things take surprising and divergent turns into fantasy and reality as this memorable masterwork becomes something more than the sum of its parts.
Moving, entertaining, and skillfully crafted, Arabian Nights is a must-see for all VIFF viewers as it blends together disparate interests into one singular whole. Luckily, we’re screening each part three times Volume 1: The Restless One, Volume 2: The Desolate One, & Volume 3: The Enchanted One to make it easier for busy VIFFgoers to fit it into their schedules. This also gives you the option to marathon the film, watching all three parts in a row, or to break it up over several days [an Arabian Nights 3-Screening Ticket pack is available online for $30]. If you have the choice to do either, the filmmaker himself thinks that the three films are best screened separately to allow them the space to be appreciated as individual pieces—and that’s how it was screened at Quinzane des Realisateurs at the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered. Personally, however, I enjoy long viewings (cinema’s ability to transcend temporality becomes more pronounced in such a setting!), and think that getting lost in Gomes’s lucid storytelling for the better part of a day sounds like an ideal VIFF experience.