Adapting One Thousand and One Nights for the cinema is no small undertaking, especially when to do so automatically places you in the estimable company of the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Georges Méliès. While the framework of Scheherazade’s need to tell her fantastical tales in order to save her life (and those of others) is still present, it is just that – little else of the source text remains, at least in terms of plot. Over these three films, a disparate and heady miasma of strange trials, talking animals, recondite hobbies, suicide, priapism and economic hardship unfold, primarily in Portugal of 2013 and 2014.
The trilogy begins with a prologue of sorts that establishes quite avowedly that this is not to be a literal adaptation of the famous book(s). Via documentary footage and interviews, we learn that a shipyard in a town in contemporary Portugal is to be closed; the town is also beset by a swarm of Asian Hornets threatening the indigenous bee population and, as such, the local honey production. The film’s director, Miguel Gomes, narrates (temporarily) and appears on screen, utterly despondent. He is trying to link the two problems afflicting the town, but isn’t sure what he means by it; then things take an unexpected and comic turn. It is the first of many, many formally playful moments over the trilogy’s intimidating six hours and twenty-one minutes duration. We do see Scheherazade (and she does turn up as other characters through her stories) in her Baghdad ‘in the Antiquity of Time’, especially in the third part, an undisguised modern-day Marseilles (Scheherazade uses a speed boat and at one point she and her father converse on a Ferris wheel). This is no sword-and-sandal epic and puts the (almost) here-and-now, post-economic crisis Portugal through a frequently entrancing magical realist filter.
Those only familiar with Gomes’ 2012 feature Tabu may be initially surprised by the tone and form of Volume 1: The Restless One but gradually a more meditative feeling takes over – the first film flits between several stories and settings; the second slows into more detailed, longer tales; and the third slows further still, to such an extreme that the trilogy ends with a grinding inertia (which stands in stark contrast to the first film in particular). The testudineous pace of Volume 3: The Enchanted One does bear facile resemblance to Tabu’s meditative oneirism, but lacks its compelling emotional weight. Unfortunately, the over-extended primary story of Volume 3 slips readily into self-indulgence and stretches initially interesting subject matter to a frustratingly ponderous length (there was an unusually high amount of groaning and sighing around the audience); arguably the saviour of this part and thus the trilogy is the particularly effective climactic use of The Langley School Music Project’s take on ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’, but the problems with this volume do threat to bend the viewer’s impression of the whole trilogy significantly out of shape.
Its running length and its experimental form makes Arabian Nights no small undertaking for a viewer either, but for all its manifest flaws, it is a worthwhile one; charming, beautiful, bawdy, hilarious, tragic and furious, it makes for a long, strange trip and one all curious or serious filmgoers should consider taking.
Andrew R. Hill