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Monday, September 21, 2015

Arabian Nights I, II, III

I – The Restless One, II – The Desolate One, III – The Enchanted One

I saw Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), which celebrated four decades this year.

The film comprises three parts - The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. It is about contemporary Portugal. My motivation in choosing the 383-minute ode was to know about contemporary society in Portugal, a country that has historical links to India. 

It turned out to be a serendipitous decision.

The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Portuguese society in the face of economic recession, and the adversities faced by the population because of the severe austerity measures enforced by the international lending institutions.

Here are my impressions of the epic:

The first part (The Restless One) comprises three stories. The first is Men with a Hard On. It's all about erections induced by a potion recommended by an African adorning tribal costume to a group of technocrats trying try to resolve the economic woes facing their country but unable to agree where to levy the cut in social welfare.

The second - the Story of the Cockerel and Fire is about a talking cockerel who, much to the annoyance of the townspeople, crows rather loudly all night in an apparent bid to caution the townspeople of the misfortune that would strike them in the form of a young arsonist whose unrequited love causes her to set afire forests.

The cockerel acquires such notoriety that his name appears on the list of candidates contesting the mayoral polls. 

The magistrate, who claims to understand bird/animal talk, conducts a hearing to decide whether the cockerel is guilty as charged for disturbing peace. And after the hearing, agrees that the bird’s intentions were noble.

The third story is The Swim of Magnificents and it is about a man who is tries to make some money organizing an annual dip in the sea on the New Year. He gets nightmares when his plans run into a whale of a problem – a beached whale. The local authorities prevent the annual dip, and the man has a nightmare of being inside the innards of the whale.

Fortunately, the bloated carcass explodes, strewing its innards across the beach. In the meantime, the man and his much younger friend in a punk hairdo, begin to record experiences of middle aged unemployed men trying to find a job.

The first part of the trilogy Arabian Nights (The Restless One) sets the tone for a series of stories that continue in the other two parts (The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One).  

The film begins with the director (Gomes enacts the role) abandoning the project of making a film on Portugal’s economic woes, confessing that only abstraction can do justice to such a grand theme. But he confesses that abstraction causes him severe vertigo. He flees the scene and then, the narration is then taken over by Scheherazade, who adapts the stories of the Portuguese people to the 1001 Nights format.

It is this fantabulist bent that characterizes the entire epic. Miguel Gomes has little patience and evidently lesser respect for structure or form, and is agnostic to the intermingling of fact, fiction and fantasy. He combines documentary style camera work, with touristy panoramic visuals of the fabulous beaches and seafronts of Portugal.

All the stories have a basis in reality. In fact, while filming the epic, which took more than a year, the filmmaker had a team of journalists looking for news reports of specific and peculiar instances of hardships the Portuguese society faced during the restructuring phase. Check out the website: Arabian Nights.

In the second part – The Desolate One begins with the story of a serial killer, who murders his wife and daughter. Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels' is about Simao who is on the run, and has been successfully evade arrest. He becomes a local hero among the locals apparently for no other reasons expect that they are happy to see someone defy authority. He surrenders when he apparently gets bored of the his existence in the wild, which includes an orgy with nubile young women who sit on him in the nude and slap each others bottoms.

The main story in the second part Tears of the Judge. It is about a magistrate who holds court in an amphitheatre to try cases that are straight out of the mid-twentieth century theatre of the absurd. The magistrate’s character is based on a real life magistrate in Portugal who broke down after handling out a sentence to a petty criminal for robbing people outside an ATM.

The magistrate hears cases pertaining to mail order Chinese brides, a stolen cow, a banker and a mother-son duo accused of petty thievery (and the son’s sex addiction). The banker is blamed for all the troubles, and he is never shown on screen. What is shown is his post-coital, limp penis covered in virginal blood. The camera voyeuristically closes in on his young wife, as she walks from the bedroom to the kitchen, blood flowing down her legs, and calls her mother to inform her about her first night.  

The final episode in this part The Owners of Dixie is a story of a destitute couple who get into a suicide pact, as they are unable to survive. They gift their pet (Dixie, an angelic dog) to a young couple, not too different from them, except in age, and their addiction to drugs. Everyone in the condo block loves Dixie, and despite it changing many masters, continues to remain everyone’s favourite.

Towards the end, we find out that in the condo’s corridors has a ghost of a dog that is similar to Dixie. Among the tenants living in the condo is a Gujarati family who has a pet parakeet who talks incessantly, but suddenly stops, and even when the family pays the vet a thousand euros (by borrowing) it speaks no more. 

The condo also has immigrants from India, who play cricket wearing Sahara India shirts, and a bevy of Brazilian beauties who prefer to sunbathe in the nude on the terrace of the multistoried building.

The second part was Portugal’s official entry at the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language film for 2015. It has eclectic music and stunning visuals that at once convey the claustrophobic insides of the apartments, and the sprawling destitution.

In the final part – The Enchanted One – we meet Scheherazade again. Her father – the vizier to King Shahryar – can’t get over the remorse of having got her daughter married to the crazy king. The father-daughter duo who belong to the medieval times meet on a Ferris wheel at a beach that is in the present times.

The father assures the daughter that everything will turn out just fine, but has difficulty believing that himself. Then, the princess sails off on a motorboat to an archipelago where she meets a virile stud of a man who has sired over 200 children. The princess, a practical woman, refuses to the man’s advances for a more permanent sort of relationship, preferring momentary physical pleasure.

The final story of the series - The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches - is of working class men surviving on the outskirts of the city trapping and training chaffinches. It is a story not just of the fluctuating fortunes of these men, but also of the slowly transforming landscape that was once dominated by forests (prior to the 1974 revolution) being taken over by unplanned development.

The story is interrupted by another one of a Chinese immigrant who falls in love with a cop who leaves her after she becomes pregnant. The visuals for the entire episode comprise of tension between striking and on duty cops clashing over wages. The Chinese girl (whose Chinese name translates into Portuguese as Hot Forrest) is only heard, not seen.

The trilogy eschews any attempt to adhere to or abide by any logic, and deliberately strains the viewers’ tacit acceptance of process of suspension of disbelief. The narration is frequently interrupted by unheralded appearance of genies; but nearly all of them are at the end of their powers or easy to manipulate. Film closes with the classic 1970s number Calling occupants of interplanetary craft popularized by Carpenters. 

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