The meandering and meditative madness of this is a mystery solved long ago, leaving the final chapter of Gomes' masterwork somewhat disarmed of excitement.
Arabian Nights: Volume 3 – The Enchanted One
The rhythm of the third and final chapter in Miguel Gomes‘ Arabian Nights shifts gears to the point of bewildering (as opposed to enchanting) those who are already done digesting The Desolate One. The Enchanted One is difficult (I’d even go as far as to say impossible) to fully appreciate as a standalone piece, considerably moreso than the two previous volumes. Its parts are divided up in the most irregular of ways. It begins with a prologue, before morphing almost entirely into something like a documentary about bird-trappers in Portugal. Stylistically, Gomes opts for the written word over Scheherazade’s (Crista Alfaiate) voice-over, asking his audience to literally read (a lot), or get lost. Then, suddenly, a Chinese girl (Jing Jing Guo) narrates her life-changing experience as a foreigner in Portugal, while images of people protesting fill the screen. The method in the meandering and meditative madness of Volume 3 is a mystery solved long ago, leaving the final chapter of Gomes’ masterwork somewhat disarmed of direct excitement.
While it’s considerably tougher to engage with the action here, in the bigger picture The Enchanted One is still a vital piece. For one thing, it feels important to spend a bit of intimate time with Alfaiate’s Scheherazade, even if that time ends up being somewhat disappointing. Her doubts over the effects her stories are having on the king, her sense of imprisonment, and her yearning to experience all the wonders of life outside the castle’s walls; all of these bring her character down to earth and, magically, enhance every story she told in The Restless One and The Desolate One. Once she starts roaming Baghdad’s archipelago, some of her encounters are decadent to an off-putting degree, but all it takes is one conversation with her father, the Grand-Vizier (Américo Silva), and we’re immersed again. Perhaps it’s because he reminds her of the importance of stories, and where they come from.
Scheherazade returns to her king, and begins the story about the songs of chaffinches. While it certainly looks labored, the choice of going with title passages over narration to tell this story must’ve really been no choice at all. As beautiful as Alfaiate’s voice is, it would only serve to disrupt the birds’ stirring songs and the bird-trappers’ silence in attending to their beloved passion. For The Enchanted One is at its most entrancing when it follows Chico Chapas (yep, Simao ‘Without Bowels’ from Volume 2) and other bird-trappers in Portugal—unemployed men, lonely men, men hardened by the harshness of life—in their efforts to find, nurture, and teach new songs to the little feathered crooners.
For the first time in Gomes’ Arabian Nights, Scheherazade breaks from a story and concludes it at a later point. In between, we get a brief, wholly captivating, rendition of Ling’s experience in Portugal. Her voice-over narration (in Mandarin)—as she recounts her experience with falling in love and living with a Countess, told over images of Portuguese demonstrations—is beautiful stuff. The fact that it’s so brief, and that Scheherazade returns to the chaffinches right after it, marries the incantations of the human voice with the musical chirps of the birds in a deeply profound way.
As fitting of an ending to Arabian Nights as it is—with a wondrous cover of Klatuu’s ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ to send us off—The Enchanted One is considerably less powerful than the previous two chapters in this unforgettable saga. It would be an interesting experiment to see if its effects would be any different in a single sitting of all three volumes. Viewed as a single entity, though, it’s the least accessible piece of work Miguel Gomes—occupant of interplanetary craft—that he has ever done. In this way, it also feels like the most personal section of Arabian Nights; an impression that’s supported by a final, heartfelt, message from the director himself. As strong a case The Restless One and The Desolate One make as stand-alone films, The Enchanted One embraces all three into one inseparable whole. A whole suffused with a singular poetic imagination, confirming—as all great pieces of film art do—the powerful storytelling medium in cinema.
Originally published on October 2nd, 2015 as part of our coverage for the New York Film Festival.