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Note: "Arabian Nights" is a three-part film. This review only discusses the first, titled "Volume I: The Restless One."
Contrary to the suggestion of the title, “Arabian Nights” is not set in the distant past and surprisingly has nothing to do with Arabia. In fact, it is about current economic and political crisis of Portugal. However, director Miguel Gomes cleverly puts this commentary into a collection of funny, surreal tales that are told in a similar fashion with the “One Thousand Nights and One Night” folktale collection, splitting the story into three volumes, each containing three tales for an aggregated run time of approximately six hours.
This narrative architecture is interesting in itself, but the execution is what makes the film fantastic. In the Godardesque beginning, the film cuts back and forth between shots of an old shipyard, news reports of the shipyard being closed and workers’ reactions, and on-set recordings of the director himself making another movie. The voiceover throughout this part tells the audience how Gomes is deeply concerned with the reality in Portugal while he is making another movie and how he suddenly flees away from the set to explore the social problems in his country, leaving his crew bewildered. This narration is to some extent a documentary of how he started “Arabian Nights.” While in reality he never escaped from its set, he did abandon an ongoing project and hired two journalists to do research on the social problems in Portugal. He later based his stories on these findings.
Following this beginning, however, “Arabian Nights” has little to do with realism. It radically changed the materials provided by the journalists into Kafkaesque absurd tales. Each deals with one real aspect of Portuguese society but adds a taste of mysticism. In the first story, for instance, a special team from the likes of IMF and European Commission come to Portugal to research its economic situation, and encounter a wizard in the desert who gives them a cure for impotence. However, while the medicine gives these middle-aged men their long lost erectile vitality, it is so powerful that their erections never end, causing them to suffer from the supposed gift. As they turn to the wizard for an antidote, he asks for several billion euros. Following stories feature a rooster that changes the result of an election and a tree that talks, but all these take place in a world that seems otherwise completely normal—Portugal as it is right now.
“Arabian Nights” is devastatingly refreshing and fascinating, even among the many first-class films that debut at a top-flight film festival like Cannes, and it is hilarious. However, it is unclear to what extent these tales are just funny stories told in an auteur style or to what extent they really have deep meanings behind them. While all of the stories have a particular social background, it sometimes feels as if the social issues only serve as a backdrop and nothing more. In any case, the world depicted in “Arabian Nights”—however much it is or is not related to reality—is sophisticated and enchanting.
“Arabian Nights” is perhaps the weirdest film at this year’s Festival de Cannes, and among the funniest. Only time will tell, however, if the film will become an all-time classic or collect dust on the shelf, regarded purely as a high-quality offbeat satire.
—Tianxing Lan can be reached at email@example.com.
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