A work of surreal, humorous, and vigorously compelling cinematic art.
Arabian Nights: Volume 1- The Restless One
It takes 20 or so minutes before we see the vibrantly playful title of the first chapter in Miguel Gomes‘ latest project, all bedecked in gold; Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One. Before it; a prologue interweaves three narrative threads in a hypnotically potent way, gluing the intended audience to the screen. First-person accounts of Portugal’s declining shipbuilding industry, a wasp epidemic, and a film director (Gomes himself) who is plagued by the apparent stupidity of his own idea for his next film. That is, a metaphorical linkage of the infamous “One Thousand And One Nights” fairytale structure to his interpretation of Portugal’s economic crisis. This meta-documentary approach with the prologue is odd and endearing, but it resonates, above all else, because of its raw honesty.
A single shot stands a cut above the rest from this introduction. A wonderfully long wide shot of a large group of people seeing off a ship from Viana’s seaport, as the voice(s)-over swing between shipyard employees and a self-made wasp exterminator. It’s pregnant with a kind of romanticized melancholia that has become one of Gomes’ signature traits, and augurs—before we’re even introduced to Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate)—how the director might just pull off his “stupid” idea in remarkable fashion. Indeed, from the moment we delve into the first story about ‘The Men With Hard-Ons,’ to the emotional precipice we’re left with by the end of ‘The Swim of the Magnificent,’ Gomes proves The Restless One is everything under the sun, but never, ever, stupid.
Scheherazade’s unique way of avoiding imminent death at the hands of her mad king husband has attracted Gomes to use her method in order to create a work of surreal, humorous, and vigorously compelling cinematic art. For those unaware of the Arabian Nights premise, a quick brief: the beautiful Scheherazade takes it upon herself to stop her Persian king’s violent ways, a man with a reputation for murdering his wives after taking their virginity. Each night, right before he’s about to sentence her to death, his new wife starts telling him a story, only to stop it halfway. The king, unable to bear the thought of not knowing how the story ends, spares her life for another day so that she may finish recounting it the next night. This surrender to the power of storytelling courses through Gomes’ entire filmography, so it’s easy to see why he’s so attracted to Scheherazade’s method.
Getting into too much detail about the first three stories in The Relentless One would be the equivalent of spoiling the twist in a Shyamalan movie, so I’m not doing it. Suffice it to say that, through finespun camera work, unostentatious cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s DP), and Gomes’ screenplay (written with Telmo Churro and Mariana Ricardo), the allegories of Portugal’s unemployment crisis and her government’s negotiations with the European troika are generated with an insoluble type of electric charge. Though not an actor’s showcase by any means, Adriano Luz (who plays the “haggard romantic” Luis in the third story) and Dinarte Branco (who delivers the greatest monologue of the entire chapter as Lopes in the first story) are vital to The Restless One‘s emotional undercurrent. One that’s in constant flux between love for a country and rage at the state it’s in.
Through all the Luis Buñuel-esque hijinks and splashes of sheer brilliance, moments stick out. An intensely languid tracking shot of a man describing his experience as someone “unemployed by circumstance”. A preadolescent love triangle composed in a humorously exaggerated version of Generation Y SMS language. A man remembering the time he got his finger stuck in Biology class—a memory orchestrated by the most effective shot transition in the whole film. Moments of joy, devastation, despair, love, acceptance, and washed-up whales that explosively birth mermaids. You don’t need to see all three volumes to understand that Arabian Nights sees Miguel Gomes at his most ambitious, exposing his artistic soul in the most honest way he knows how. The realism of the film’s prologue is contrasted with the surrealism of everything that comes after it, but both share Gomes’ impulse to lure the viewer in through the power of story, intimate and epic alike.
The second story, ‘The Cockerel And The Fire,’ is decidedly weaker than the others, or at least the first half of it is, which impacts the glorious momentum of The Relentless One. Anticipation for the second volume, The Desolate One, is no less palpable for it. Even more significantly, the emotions evoked by watching how low fantasy embraces socioeconomics in one of the year’s boldest cinematic events, remain none the wiser.
Originally published on September 30th, 2015.