Friday, 18 December 2015

ARABIAN NIGHTS - Review By Thomas Zachary Toles - The Captive Storyteller in Gomes Epic

Video Services Corp. (VSC) presents its Canadian theatrical release of 2015's most ambitious and unique cinematic experiences in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. A major hit at Cannes and TIFF, Arabian Nights (2015), directed by Portuguese auteur Miguel (Tabu) Gomes is an epic six-hour contemporary masterpiece presented in three parts: Vol. 1, The Restless One / Vol. 2, The Desolate One / Vol. 3, The Enchanted One. This revolutionary trilogy begins in Montreal – Cinema du Parc (3575 Avenue du Parc) on December 18, 2015, then begins in Vancouver – Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour St) on January 1, 2016, and last, but not least in Toronto – TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St W) on January 8, 2016.

The Film Corner is pleased to present its guest critic (and lecturer, actor, director, Rhodes Scholar), Thomas Zachary Toles, to share his thoughts...

The Captive Storyteller: Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes

Film Corner Guest Review
By Thomas Zachary Toles

When your episodic epic is over six hours long, you have plenty of time for scathing social critique, deadpan comedy, magical realism, documentary-style interviews, and an impressive number of dick jokes.

The sweeping three-part Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes uses the familiar structure of the classic folktale collection to celebrate and contemplate the need for stories during a crisis (in this case, massive unemployment and fiscal inequality in Portugal). As Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) explains, stories “spring from the wishes and fears of man” and, fated as she is herself to hold an audience’s attention she quite literally affirms that stories “help us to survive.”

Whereas Federico Fellini uses Marcello Mastroianni as a fictional surrogate for himself in , Gomes becomes his own Guido Anselmi in Arabian Nights, slipping himself into the prologue--the filmmaker as both fictional character and documentary subject.

Interviews with laid off Portuguese shipyard workers are intercut with footage of an attempted wasp cull, a hazy metaphoric link that the director claims to be too stupid to clarify. Gomes describes himself in these early scenes as pretentious, idealistic, and cowardly. He literally runs from the Arabian Nights project, apparently riddled with doubts about his ambition and competence.

With these self-referential moments, Gomes thematically links his own status as a filmmaker to Scheherazade’s status as the imprisoned storyteller of Arabian Nights. While Scheherazade must always tantalize her audience night after night or be killed, Gomes sees the fate of his country hanging in the balance. The director feels a grave responsibility to respond to the draconian austerity measures across his country, yet is tormented by the thought that his creativity could fail him when he needs it most.

The prologue that introduces Arabian Nights, ostensibly takes a cinéma-vérité approach that suggests a certain faithfulness to “reality” while simultaneously employing a surreal indirectness that bleeds into fantasy. The sequence sets up a crucial collation for Gomes: that of fiction and so-called historical fact.

When the film crew is buried in the sand and Scheherazade takes control of the film’s narration, Gomes imposes his conviction that “imagination and reality have never been able to exist without each other”.

The fantastic elements of the film exist in relation to recognizable human impulse. Moments of magic sometimes serve to highlight contradictions in characters’ thought, as when the expert bird-trapper, Chapas, begrudgingly frees an old, sick genie trapped in a net. In other sequences, magical instances provide an intangible space for characters to connect with each other.

One tale, “The Tears of the Judge,” comically depicts a judge’s frustration as she unravels an increasingly ridiculous and convoluted chain of guilt. The judge becomes so overwhelmed that she rejects everyone in their stupidity, evilness, and despair, lowering her head in surrender. Then, impossibly, the judge is heartened by a sign language pardon that she cannot see. The language of mercy is shown to operate on an extra-sensual level.

The mystical elements of Scheherazade’s tales are knit into the fabric of the world, unsurprising to the characters that encounter them. Strikingly, even the most outlandish tales are filmed with a degree of asceticism. Gomes presents wind spirits, beached mermaids, and talking cows without spectacle, conscious that such inventions are no less comprehensible than the moral bankruptcy of Portugal’s leaders.

Gomes’s lack of visual extravagance in no way limits the aesthetic impact of Arabian Nights. The film’s delicate restraint can be exquisitely devastating: a fugitive patiently eats beans in the dark as officers on horseback gather behind him; Scheherazade and her father discuss her incarceration as they ride a dreamy Ferris wheel on the beach; a mirror is lowered by a dog leash towards the window of an apartment where a couple has committed suicide.

Gomes is fascinated by actors’ bodies, using long takes to capture the way they amble through landscapes or sunbathe nude on a roof. Such attention has an empathic effect. We spend so long watching Simão “Without Bowels” (Chico Chapas) wander, as he staves off the isolation of exile through the offerings of others, that when we are finally told that he has murdered his family, his corporeal vulnerability is entrenched in our minds.

Gomes’s film suggests that stories are as essential to the survival of the Portuguese people as to Scheherazade. Her real world counterparts also face miserable restrictions by tyrannical “kings.”

Heartbreaking testimonies from the unemployed people in “The Swim of the Magnificents” attempt to make sense of life in the aftermath of economic crisis (one man hands out over a thousand CVs until he feels his identity has dissolved). Gomes knows that storytelling done right expands our empathy, helping us to take hold of incomprehensible events that leave us adrift.

The disenfranchised people of Portugal form a chorus of Chaffinches, cruelly trapped, singing beautiful songs for those with the patience to listen.

And, seeing the morning break, the film critic fell silent.


Video Services Corp. (VSC) presents

Arabian Nights:
Vol. 1, The Restless One
Vol. 2, The Desolate One
Vol. 3, The Enchanted One

A trilogy by Miguel Gomes

Begins in Montreal – Cinema du Parc (3575 Avenue du Parc)
December 18, 2015

Begins in Vancouver – Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour St)
January 1, 2016

Begins in Toronto – TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St W)
January 8, 2016