It seems hard to imagine that a film combining a centuries-old collection of fairy tales with stories from the recent recession in Portugal would appeal to anyone except for the most dedicated cinephiles. Moreover, the film is six hours in total, made up of unconnected episodes. It was very surprising to walk out of part one of “Arabian Nights” feeling confident that director Miguel Gomes was destined for immediate success with stereotypically impatient U.S. audiences.
“Arabian Nights Vol. 1” could be called the “Nashville” of Portugal. Like “Nashville,” “Arabian Nights” is an epic created by a country experiencing political turmoil and its response of mass cynicism. It makes light of these feelings by first admitting that they exist, and second, by mocking the people who cause them. The film also manages to show how great the country is in all of its craziness. Best of all, “Arabian Nights” is shot exclusively on film.
Above all else, “Arabian Nights” is very funny. Each section of the film starts from a serious place but then adds a humorous element that lightens the mood. In one of those moments, a group of officials has gathered to discuss austerity measures for Portugal. Then, as they are walking along a beach, a magician comes and gives them a magical version of Viagra. In the next volume, two neighbors argue over whether one can keep a rooster that crows loudly. Then, local politicians decide to make this a symbol of the freedom that is disappearing from the country. The situation becomes even more surreal when a man arrives who can talk to the rooster.
The way Gomes manages to juggle all these plots is what makes him a star international director. He opens with a long, self-referential scene in which he agonizes over how to assemble the movie without it being a total disaster. At one point he gets scared and runs away from the cameramen. This is something right out of Godard, but much lighter and more endearing.
The many romantic stories in the movie are awkward in a way that Wes Anderson has made famous. The way the film goes after the rich is ultra-dry like Bunuel, but is funnier from a director who can work on many other levels.
While Gomes does a good job in creating a touching story out of an overplayed plot, there are some flaws. Some sections go on a little too long, and some jokes are a little too easy, reusing jokes that are guaranteed laughs instead of creating original humor. These type of problems are almost inevitable in a large film, and they do no real damage to the whole production. Gomes, in only his fourth film, has tried something big and pulled it off.
“Arabian Nights” premiered at the NYFF on Sept. 30.
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