is a cold, hard, immutable fact of life that any nation surrendering control
over its monetary policy must therefore use fiscal means to solve its fiscal
problems. However, Miguel Gomes simply cannot grasp this self-evident
principle. Unfortunately, in this case ignorance does not produce great art. Instead,
Gomes proves the folly of didacticism with his three-film cycle, Arabian Nights (trailer here), a haphazardly assembled grab bag of leftist tropes and
half-baked literary archetypes that screens as three misguided Main Slate
selections of the 53rd New York Film Festival.
his initial intertitles, Gomes warns us his Arabian
Nights has nothing to do with the traditional Arabic folk tales, even
though it appropriates the title, as well as the use of Scheherazade as the
narrator. These are episodes of woe resulting from Portugal’s austerity
policies, allegedly passed by “a government seemingly devoid of social justice.”
Of course, the Greek Syriza government has social justice coming out of its
nose, but they passed an even more stringent austerity package. That is what
happens when you can no longer devalue your way out of debt.
that as it so obviously is, Gomes is determined to score his ideological points
as best he can. After a haltingly Godardian preamble in which Gomes literally
runs away from the supposed ambition of his film(s), Scheherazade commences the
motely tales of Arabian Nights: The Restless
One. The first is a representationally inconsequential sketch about
politicians and their erections.
then segues into the meat of the film, “The Cockerel and the Fire,” one of the
least political charged fables of the cycle. When an annoyingly shrill rooster
is put on trial, a Dr. Doolittle-like judge is sent to hear his defense. It
turns out, he is trying to warn people of future disaster resulting from a love
triangle, which we then watch as a tale within the tale. In fact, the jealous
lover’s morality play is reasonably diverting and incorporates texting in an
unusual clever fashion. Sadly, the film loses all momentum with the didactic
and repetitive “Magnificents,” in which a handful of structurally unemployed
relief-seekers recount their sorrows in obsessive detail, before taking the
plunge in a union-sponsored Polar Bear-style swim.
1 is a problematically mixed bag, but there are elements here and there that
give cause for hope. Nonetheless, Arabian
Nights: The Desolate One is basically more of the same, even starting with
a jokey, slightly grotesque warm-up. However, Desolate’s centerpiece, “Tears of the Judge” is by far the high
point of the entire pseudo-trilogy. It also features a genuine, engaging
performance from Luisa Cruz as the judged tasked with getting to the bottom as
an increasingly outlandish house-that-Jack-built chain of crimes. It would be a
winner if Gomes had spliced it out and sent it into the world as a short.
Unfortunately, Desolate peters out
during “The Owners of Dixies,” a true shaggy dog story that shows initial
promise but drags on interminably.
Desolate is easily the most watchable
of the feature triptych, so it is not so random that Portugal chose it
specifically as its official foreign language Oscar submission, at least if
these were the only three films released in the country this year. Sadly
though, all hope is quickly abandoned once Arabian
Nights: The Enchanted One starts. Finally, Scheherazade appears in her own
story, but it never really goes anywhere.
it looks downright plotty compared to “The Inebriated Chorus of the
Chaffinches,” a nearly eighty minute observational pseudo-documentary about
rugged bird trappers. No, seriously. These rustic gentlemen might be
fascinating, but Gomes shows little confidence in them. Instead of letting them
speak on camera, everything is explained through Scheherazade’s on-screen
text, making Enchanted a mighty chore
to sit through.
it perks up with “Hot Forest,” a tale within the non-tale, narrated by a
Chinese exchange student who visited Portugal and became the kept woman of a
rugged cop who sympathizes with the anti-austerity rioters. This might have
amounted to something if Gomes had embraced the irony of a socialist
demonstrating against exploitation, who turned into an exploiter himself, but
Gomes just isn’t in the irony business. It is also another awkward example of
how Gomes casually equates Asian women with sex objects, like the twelve
Chinese “mail order brides” who turn up in “Tears of the Judge.”
not mince words. I am here to tell you the emperor has no clothes. Gomes’ Arabian Nights has no business being at
the New York Film Festival or any half-serious fest. In any merit-based universe,
it would be spell the end of Gomes as a filmmaker worthy of serious press
attention, but critics have fallen in line behind it, intimidated by its
leftist screeds. Nevertheless, as a viewing experience, it is sorely lacking.
The narratives of the constituent stories are fragmentary at best, character
development is almost nonexistent, and it all has a dingy, pedestrian visual
style. Don’t buy the hype. There is no there there.
Enchanted One is so lifeless and
contemptuous of the viewer’s time, it drags down the previous two installments in
retrospect. If you are dead set on getting a taste of Arabian Nights it should absolutely, positively be The Desolate One, but even that is not
worth any great effort. They certainly do not need to be seen in a block to
inform each other. There are only a handful of call-backs throughout the entire
cycle and they are each mere throwaways. None of them are really recommended,
but The Enchanted One should be
resolutely avoided. For those who need to take their penance, The Restless One screens this Wednesday
(9/30) at the Walter Reade, followed by The
Desolate One on Thursday (10/1), and The
Enchanted One on Friday (10/2), as part of this year’s NYFF.
Labels: Miguel Gomes, NYFF '15, Portuguese Cinema