Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy begins with a series of shots of a shipyard in Viana do Castelo – the camera apparently drifting on a boat easing past the dock, pointed at a group of workers clustered on the edge of water. In voiceover, a number of men describe their earliest memories of the shipyard. These are presumably members of the some six hundred workers whose jobs, the film reveals soon, are imperilled, due to a series of stringent austerity measures enacted by the Portuguese government in 2013/2014, under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF.
One voice describes his amazement at the monumental spectacle of industry and commerce the shipyard first presented to him, with its giant cranes reaching to the heavens. Here, he remembers thinking, is evidence that “the world has no limits”.
Arabian Nights is a multi-faceted examination of Portuguese austerity, wrung through the prism of the One Thousand and One Nights. As in the original legend, the wily storyteller Scheherazade each night distracts her murderous husband, the king, with a story. But here — across three two-hour films, or ‘volumes’ — Gomes stages the action in a kind of hybrid setting of modern Portugal and Arabian wonderland, while the stories themselves veer across some combination of comedy, drama, documentary, and all stages in-between.
In an explanatory note preceding each volume, Gomes declares that these stories are adapted from “facts” occurring in Portugal across 2013-2014, when, under a government “devoid of social justice”, the country was “held hostage to austerity” and almost all Portuguese were impoverished.
For a time, the film descends into polyphony, as voiceovers directed at each strand compete for space on the soundtrack.
Even beyond the framing device borrowed from the Thousand and One Nights, Gomes’ film unfurls as a labyrinth of stories within stories. The director himself appears onscreen in the first movement of Volume 1, ‘The Restless One’, explaining his impulse to document Portuguese austerity, and his frustration over his inability to settle on the correct form. He tries to combine an account of the situation of the Castelo shipyard workers with a separate strand concerning an infestation of wasps that is plaguing Portuguese beekeepers, but professes to be unable to see how the pieces fit together. For a time, the film descends into polyphony, as voiceovers directed at each strand compete for space on the soundtrack.
Gomes himself, on screen again, tries to escape from his own film, leaping up from his chair and racing out of shot. His befuddled crew gives chase, eventually burying their director up to his neck in sand, and — in quasi-Marxist, kangaroo court style — announcing their intention to execute him. Gomes stalls them, offering to tell them the tale of the Thousands and One Nights, and it is only here that the story ‘proper’ begins, with Scheherazade (played by Crista Alfaiate) suddenly speeding into frame on a cruise boat, on her way to a fanciful Arabian island, where she dines with a procession of virgins.
This brief episode is followed by ‘The Men with Hard-Ons’, a bluntly satirical look at austerity negotiations between the Portuguese government and international finance. Three representatives from the IMF and World Bank are attempting to strong arm the government into accepting exorbitant rates of debt repayment, when a local wizard, correctly attributing the misanthropy of the entire negotiating party as being due to male impotency, offers them an aerosol spray that bestows enormous, long-lasting erections. Flush with the thrill of their own engorged phalluses (“The whole world is revolving around my cock”, one IMF man says, “It’s so cool.”) the bankers relax their economic proscriptions, until the absolute permanency of their erections becomes tiresome, and they decide to level stringent austerity measures in order to pay the wizard to reverse the spell.
In the bankers’ negotiations with the Portuguese government they adopt the universal language of creditors toward debtors everywhere: you have spent too freely, and are now morally obligated to make amends. The illusion of endless and endlessly repayable credit is itself a kind of world without limit (a dream encouraged by large lending organisations), one of many such worlds whose horizons are shrinking and reforming throughout the trilogy.
The centrepiece episode of Volume 2 is a courtroom farce given a playful, Brechtian staging in an open stone amphitheatre. An exasperated court official, adjudicating a case in which a pair of tenants sold their apartment’s furnishing, which belonged to their landlord, finds that the guilty party defers responsibility for the crime back onto the landlord, who himself defers it elsewhere. An absurd chain of culpability unfolds, eventually indicting almost the entire courtroom audience, including a genie, a passel of Chinese mail order brides, and a kidnapped cow (who shows up to provide testimony).
“I’m feeling sick,” says the judge (played by Luísa Cruz). “This grotesque chain of stupidity, evil, desperation is beginning to test my competence and above all my patience.” She breaks down in tears. Here’s another kind of world without limits, in which economic desperation has caused a breakdown in the social fabric, leaving an entire society floundering through an ethical and legal vacuum.
Early reports had each volume of Gomes’ trilogy being essentially disconnected from the other two, which is true inasmuch as each presents a series of self-contained episodes. But when watched together (I saw the trilogy at the Melbourne International Film Festival this month, where they screened consecutively on one Sunday) a thematic through line develops. Volume 1 conveys the shock of austerity measures, suggesting a society on the brink of a precipice, and the stresses that await (its third episode features documentary testimony from the recently unemployed).
Volume 2, ‘The Desolate One’, suggests a society in upheaval, as the pressures of austerity make themselves felt. In its charming, melancholy final episode, a small dog is passed around the residents of a housing complex, few of whom can afford to keep it.
Volume 3, titled ‘The Enchanted One’ and the most difficult by far, conveys a sense of the slow passage back to social equilibrium or acceptance. Its key episode (and, running across roughly eighty minutes, the longest in the entire trilogy) is ‘The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches’, a documentary portrait of a finch-trapping subculture among the lower echelons of Portuguese society, whose members hunt and train finches to compete in song competitions.
Even in captivity, there is song.
Although somewhat enlivened by frequent textual interruptions onscreen, which convey Scheherazade’s ongoing narration, this episode is provocatively low-key, even dull – honing in on the minutiae of finch hunting and cultivation, and the history and varieties of their songs. Gomes playfully suggests that the story of the chaffinches is being related over many nights by the princess: onscreen titles indicate when she pauses for daybreak and, inevitably, when she resumes at night – to the sighs of some audience members. The message becomes clear: day by day, hour by hour, life grinds on, and there is craft and activity to be found in the most impoverished places. Even in captivity, there is song.
Although the nameless ship builder’s dream of a world with no limits register as a dramatic irony — a passing fancy in an economy now defined by shrinking horizons — Gomes’ trilogy itself, playfully, thoughtfully, episode by episode, comes to reify the ambition of that dream. In its narrative adventurousness, epic scope, and freewheeling formal invention, Arabian Nights presents nothing less than a cinema without limits.
James Robert Douglas is a freelance cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow.