Wednesday 20 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes

Arabian Nights was arguably the most anticipated, or at least the most mysterious films presented at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the new folly of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, who charmed the arthouse scene in 2012 with Tabu. Of Arabian Nights we knew very little, apart that it was to be a loose adaptation of the eponymous Arabian tale(s), transposed to contemporary Portugal, and that its running time was clocking over 6 hours! Rumour has it that it was due to be presented at Un Certain Regard, only to be rejected due to its screening arrangements. So it has ended up at Director's Fortnight instead, and split into three parts.

So how did it turn out, and what kind of film is it? Having watched the three parts (all introduced by a very spirited and entertaining Miguel Gomes, whose regular presence over this short period of time I shall miss), I can confirm that Arabian Nights is a triumph, a sprawling film essay that goes against all current trends of current world/arthouse cinema, a love letter to Portugal and its people, and a staunch anti-austerity tirade, in a way that is really heart-felt and never patronising.

Arabian Nights opens very amusingly with a film within a film sequence, during which director Miguel Gomes realises the enormity of the project that lays before him, and attempts to flee. The laughters are short-lived, as the film then moves on to a very dry, almost documentary like section that follows Portuguese dockers and they have been affected by the recent economic downturn. A section during which audiences could be forgiven for wondering what they have got themselves into. Only for the film to take a completely path and tone yet again, with an almost Pasolini-esque farce and a crude metaphor about the virility of Portuguese leaders (or how to restore it) when faced with European bankers.

And from then one, the tone is set, as we switch from genre to genre, from fiction to interviews with "real" people, as per the mood of the director, and the audience eases itself into this insane filmic proposition. Of course it is a little hit and miss and times, such is the nature of a film that often gives the feeling of being improvised. And our patience is tasted at times, I'm thinking of a particular heavy-going section near the end of volume three, during which we patiently follow and listen to the testimonies of a community of chaffinch keepers.

But there are some sections that reached some dizzying heights, and among the best scenes you will see all year. The highlight being the centrepiece section, right in the middle of volume 2, and set in an open air theatre, during which the whole of the Portuguese nation, wearing some theatrical costumes, goes on trial, an incredible feat of witty writing and inspired acting. I'm also thinking of a less bombastic sequence but just as affecting, later during volume 2, with a poor young couple in an estate and their magical dog (a guaranteed Palme Dog winner). And some of the sections which more closely follow the old Arabic tales are a real joy.

Arabian Nights is an exhilarating odyssey, at times maddening and frustrating but always surprising and rewarding, and and a film you wish would actually last 1001 nights!

Star Rating: 

Arabian Nights was presented at the Director's Fortnight.

Arabian Nights. Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland 2015. Directed by Miguel Gomes. Starring Crista Alfaiate, Adriano Luz, Carloto Cotta...

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