When Pier Paolo Pasolini turned to the Arabian Nights in the 1970s as a source for adaptation, it was, as Gideon Bachman wrote on the occasion of its release on home video two years ago, a political decision: “He wishes to put the present in a dimension of doubt, and the past is the only force that can usurp the present.”
Listening to the same text, Miguel Gomes hears something slightly different: faced with the spectre of Portugal’s political realities circa 2013-14 (austerity, greed, a government that condescends to its people), he, in a move that will surprise no one who has seen the split-in-two saudade structures of Our Beloved Month of August or Tabu, decides to include it all — the past and the present in constant, undecided conflict. Documenting the death of an era in Portugese shipyards, the fires sent to snuff out invasive hornets, and his own attempt to make Arabian Nights (in a slipstream of back-and-forth information as tricky as James Benning’s early experiments with word and image), Gomes asks the eternal questions that dog those that try to combine politics and art: militant messages or escapist metaphors? — and both isn’t an option, because one denies the other its full power.
What results is less the moral hectoring of Jia Zhangke’s similarly episodic, pulled-from-the-headlines A Touch of Sin, and more, as might be suggested by the self-portrait-in-chaos ending of Month of August, the type of fast-and-loose, but spiritually tone-exact canonical adaptations Orson Welles is both praised and ignored for, depending on who you talk to.
A title card states his purpose: the format, but not the stories themselves, are all that survive from The One Thousand and One Nights, and from there stories fold under their own weight, or spring into, other stories and other stories. “And afterwards,” goes the disorienting opening sentence of Richard F. Burton’s translation, and it is this and the following early, pre-story admonition that give Gomes’ film its faith, its belief in the usefulness of the original text: “The works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel other folk and may therefrom take warning.”
Volume One, subtitled “The Restless One,” is only three stories, but covers a range of styles and political responses, in mood and purpose perhaps most like Gomes’ mid-length Redemption in its way of skipping across time’s surface. Expected and unexpected: that municipal and federal politics are both punchlines and the power that move the world; that there appears, as if unconsciously borrowed, a shot of people wandering down a dusty road, dignified and comically aimless as the troupe from Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; that much of the script (co-written with Tabu collaborator Mariana Ricardo and co-editor Telmo Churro) is in half-dreamt voice-over; that Gomes continues his project of filming throughout the whole of Portugal, lacking any need to ever resemble the kind of cityscape postcard shooting that elsewhere passes as “on location;” that Gomes is revealed as the teller speaking many, though not all, of these tales, attempting to stave off death.
The two remaining sections of Arabian Nights (best viewed, Gomes said in an interview with Cinema Scope, at about a rate of one a day) mean any summation of what he’s done here is incomplete at best. In the third story of “The Restless One,” the tone drops from deadpan to somewhere between distanced journalism and empathy, a series of interviews rather than a climax. Easing into its ending, or perhaps leading into a transition, there are still surprises: the shift in pacing, but also the way, whether massive cast, large-scale public assembly, kid’s-eye world, or a single figure, still in a graffitied corner (“If you love someone set them free”), each is treated as an undiminished starting point for a world of thrilling complexity.