Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Arabian Nights Trilogy

I heard some pretty enthusiastic things about this series from various folks, and the premise - a combination of fantasy and realism used to examine Portugal during the recent economic crisis - sounded interesting enough to give it a shout at someplace as accessible add the Harvard Film Archive. I was a bit surprised that there wasn't a marathon session, although maybe the HFA has had rough luck with super-long presentations - they scheduled a fair number of them over the past year, and we're approaching the point on the calendar where you really don't want to worry about something that is hard to reschedule.

The way I saw it - one movie every other day - worked out pretty well, although it was pretty clear that I want on the same schedule as others - there was a good crowd for Volume 1 on Thursday night, but I suspected I was going to see Volumes 2 & 3 alone on Saturday and Sunday until some other folks showed up at the last minute. I'm guessing most moviegoers probably went for a more concentrated 1-on-Thursday + 2-on-Friday or Friday/Saturday/Sunday-at-7pm schedule.

Then again, the audience didn't seem terribly into it when the fire alarm went off about three-quarters the way through the first and we we hanging around outside the Carpenter Center in the freezing cold; I was next to a few folks who sounded like they weren't into it, and nobody was really seeming that thrilled about going back in. But, you know, it was freezing cold, so maybe that was all that was draining enthusiasm.

It's playing again this weekend, and I certainly recommend it for those who like international, unusual art films. Bummer that they don't ever do much with the mermaid born out of the exploding whale, though.

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto (Arabian Nights: Volume 1 - The Restless One)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2016 in the Harvard Film Archive (Arabian Nights, DCP)

The best way to review Miguel Gomes's three-part Arabian Nights anthology is probably all at once, rather than writing about the first film before watching the second. I am currently trying that anyway, not knowing if characters will recur or if anything beyond the broad and explicitly stated themes will connect what is, at least in my city, being presented as three separate features, very much a part of the potential audience trying the first before deciding whether or not to shell out for the other two. I'll be doing so; the first installment may not yet strike me as brilliant, but it is earnest and consistently interesting.

This one breaks down into four segments of roughly a half-hour each, with the first a sort of author's introduction as Gomes sets the scene - not of a long-ago time in Baghdad, but of Portugal in 2013 and 2014, where an already crippling recession and the insisted-upon austerity measures are bleeding working people dry. In Viana do Castelo, the shipyard that has long been the city's industrial heart is closing and an invasive species of wasps is destroying the local honeybee population, with one enterprising man working with the fire department to destroy the wasps' nests. Gomes appears both before the camera and as narrator, despondently trying to make connections, whether between these two local events or between his desires to tell fantastic stories and also represent the unhappy reality of his country. Unable to do so, he flees, setting himself up as his anthology's Scheherazade when the crew tracks him down. It's a quiet, sly way to establish his solidly real-world concerns while setting up a satiric but whimsical tone, though done aptly enough not to overpower the simple documentary pleasures of the opening: A slow pan across the docks as various unseen narrators describe how they started there and how the way of life disappeared. That discussion overlaps with the one about wasp eradication like radio stations on competing frequencies, eventually giving way to Gomes's discussion of austerity. It's informative, but casual, and against imagery that goes from beautiful to absurd.

After a brief stop to consider just how one storyteller was able to tell so many tales in the original Arabian Nights (it involved judiciously-placed cliffhangers and a large writers' room), we are treated to the "Tale of the Men with Hard-ons", and is not nearly as delightfully tacky as the title makes it sound. Picking up the theme of enforced austerity, it involves a number of bankers meeting with government officials and other locals, being offered a miracle impotence cure by a local wizard, and balking at the price he demands when their erections just won't quit. There are some funny bits during the opening scenes of negotiation - a businessman sighing over how his confrontations with his union counterpart no longer feature the same passion and violence, translation not just between Portuguese and English, but rude and obsequious, that sort of thing. But the broad jokes that you'd expect from the priapism never quite materialize; Gomes and his co-writers never even seem to milk discomfort out of the only woman at the negotiating table. Perhaps the point is that these men talk about their massive endowments despite not having the comedic bulges to match their boasting, but that seems like rather more subtle a joke than the situation merits.

Full review on EFC.

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 2, O Desolado (Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2016 in the Harvard Film Archive (Arabian Nights, DCP)

Volume 1 of Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights trilogy impressed me, although not quite enough to justify the scale of the thing on its own. This second volume, released a month after the first in their native Portugal but generally playing other territories in much closer succession, plays at just enough of a higher level to give a viewer an even stronger idea of why the whole thing is being sold as an event.

Unlike the first, this second entry (The Desolate One) doesn't start with a story that eases the audience into the concept, instead simply stating that these stories are based upon the format of 1001 Arabian Nights but inspired by stories from the recent period of austerity in Portugal as it establishes the environment for "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão 'Without Bowels'", the first of the film's three segments. Simão's colorful nickname springs from his being the type of man who can eat a great deal without gaining much weight. He's on the run, dodging drones and meeting with friends, loved ones, and supporters, although it's not until later on that the audience learns exactly why the police are after him. In the meantime, it's enough to process how Simão (Chico Chapas) makes his way through the backwoods and scrub of Portugal, less driven by the desire to escape to Spain than that to stay free. Chico Chapas is excellent as Simão, having the sort of lean and weathered face that reinforces the narration while also poking a bit of fun at how outlaws get mythologized, communicating the man's weariness and nervous state without often speaking. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom carries a lot of weight as well, highlighting just how alone Simão is, making the forces pursuing him feel like intruders, occasionally framing him against the remnants of previous inhabitation. Gomes plays with audience perception as well, offering up one sequence that is almost certainly fantasy to make the audience both question others and wonder about a broader mindset.

The middle entry, "The Tale of the Judge's Tears", is likely the film's most eccentric and perhaps delightful. It opens with a beautiful young woman (Joana de Verona) losing her virginity and then calling her mother to discuss it. The mother (Luisa Cruz) turns out to be the judge of the title, whose case - heard in an outdoor amphitheater - seems to be open and shut, but the mother and son who sold their landlord's furniture claim extenuating circumstances, the plaintiff has a story of his own, and soon a network of fraud is revealed that seems to involve the entire courtroom. This is where the episode gets delightfully absurd but also perfectly deadpan, as each new fact that the judge learns is more peculiar, down to outright fantastical. Luisa Cruz is terrific as the judge, generally striking a great balance between treating the insanity around her as believable and treating it as ridiculous. Gomes and his co-writers keep her from being entirely rational with an important bit at the beginning which comes full-circle at the end, making a point without resorting to lecturing.

Full review on EFC.

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights: Volume 3 - The Enchanted One)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2016 in the Harvard Film Archive (Arabian Nights, DCP)

Miguel Gomes seemingly sets out to end his Arabian Tales trilogy with a whimper, as there are long, long stretches of this movie where nothing really happens and the narrative captions emphasize that the story is not moving forward at all. That the movie never actually bored me out of my mind suggests that his talents as a filmmaker outstrip his talents as a troll, and there's something kind of impressive about that.

This time around, the film has the appearance of an actual adaptation of 1001 Arabian Nights despite the captions' insistence that it simply borrows the structure, opening with a middle-eastern girl dancing and a wealthy older man mistaking her for someone else. He is the father of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), who on the 515th day of her marriage to the vizier is growing weary of trying to push her decapitation (and his moving on to the rest of Bagdad's women in the original marry/screw/kill scenario). She spends the day out in the countryside, meeting the people and her father, and tapping a genie of the wind, before returning to her duty. It's a sweet story with the lovely Crista Alfaiate giving a nice performance as this woman for whom beauty a and charm are matters of duty, though she seems more resigned than bitter. Gomes does interesting things with his storytelling, such as superimposing the end of one scene over the beginning of another, notably allowing the dancer to become a ghost haunting Scheherazade's father. The setting eventually becomes less Bagdad in ancient times and more present day Portugal, and Gomes has fun with the juxtapositions. Given that he placed himself in the position of Scheherazade in the first film, one can't help but wonder what his thinking was with this segment - he spends a lot of time ruminating on how storytellers may create adventures in works they do not always experience directly, but he also presents a relatively tranquil image of the world outside, perhaps implying that the government's austerity and lack of concerns for the country's people cannot diminish the simple pleasures that people might take from each other and the beauty around them.

Eventually, though, she must return to the vizier, where she begins the tale of "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches". It looks at a small community near the Lisbon airport where focus have been trapped and trained to remember various calls ever since soldiers learned this abroad during World War I. Gomes introduces the audience to this practice and many of the neighborhood's enthusiasts, often having information about them and their birds pop up as captions. What he does not do, however, is build much of a story; it's like an observational documentary sort that stretches out for at least half of the film's 125-minute running time. T the narrative captions mention Scheherazade stopping at dawn and restarting at nightfall often enough that this goes on for weeks, enough to make one wonder how she has not been beheaded yet, as this is what the vizier does when a woman does not hold his ingest.

Full review on EFC.

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