In Portugal - one European country in crisis - a film director proposes to build fictional stories from the miserable reality he is immersed in. However, failing to find meaning in his work, he cowardly runs away and leaves the beautiful Scheherazade to stand in his shoes. She will require enthusiasm and courage so as not to bore the King with sad stories of this country. As nights go past, restlessness leads to desolation and in turn to enchantment. Therefore Scheherazade organizes the stories she tells the King in three volumes. She begins like this: "It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that in a sad country among all countries...".
'Arabian Nights: Volume 1' - The Restless One- In which Scheherazade tells of the restlessness that befell the country: "It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that in a sad country among all countries, where people dream of mermaids and whales, and unemployment is spreading. In certain places, forests burn into the night despite the falling rain; men and women long to set out to sea in the middle of winter. Sometimes there are animals that talk although it is highly improbable that they are listened to. In this country, where things are not what they appear to be, men of power promenade on camels and hide permanent and shameful erections; they await the moment when taxes are collected so they can pay a certain wizard whom..." And seeing the morning break, Scheherazade fell silent.
'Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One' - In which Scheherazade tells of how desolation invaded men: "It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that a distressed judge will cry instead of giving out her sentence on a night when all three moons are aligned. A runaway murderer will wander through the land for over forty days and will teletransport himself to escape the Police while dreaming of prostitutes and partridges. A wounded cow will reminisce about a thousand-year-old olive tree while saying what she must say, which will sound none less than sad! The residents of a tower block in the suburbs will save parrots and piss inside lifts while surrounded by dead people and ghosts; including in fact a dog that..." And seeing the morning break, Scheherazade fell silent. – "Damned tales! If things continue this way my daughter will surely end up with her throat slit!" – the Grand-Vizier, Scheherazade's father, thinks in his palace in Bagdad.
'Arabian Nights: Volume 3 - The Enchanted' - In which Scheherazade doubts that she will still be able to tell stories to please the King, given that what she has to tell weighs three thousand tons. She therefore escapes from the palace and travels the kingdom in search of pleasure and enchantment. Her father, the Grand-Vizier, arranges to meet her at the Ferris wheel and Scheherazade resumes her narration: "O auspicious King, in old shanty towns of Lisbon there was a community of bewitched men who, with all dedication and passion, devoted themselves to teaching birds to sing..." And seeing the morning break, Scheherazade fell silent.
Have you ever encountered a film so esoteric that you didn't quite know how to put the experience into words? That's the experience I had watching Miguel Gomes' 2015 epic tome of a trilogy 'Arabian Nights.' Spread over three films and 380 minutes in total length, Gomes uses the framework of the tall tales Scheherazade used to distract the Persian king Shahryar to detail the plights of the people of Portugal. At any given time you're watching a film that is documentary as well as fantasy. You're watching a film that was made within the last three years, and yet it looks and sounds like it was made over 40 years ago with a cinéma vérité style. If you're someone able to let yourself be carried away by this venture, you're in for an impressive journey that is equal parts frustrating, fascinating, and beautiful.
The Restless One:
This chapter of the film opens with the closing and dismantling of Portugal's once vibrant and thriving shipping docks that employed hundreds of people. This was the lifeblood of an economy as people worked round the clock to build bigger and bigger ships. With the closing of the docs, people are without jobs and now faced with an uncertain future. In conjunction with this, a blight in the form of deadly Asian Wasps that had invaded Portugal. These wasps are a threat to the bee population which can impact crop production but also incredibly harmful to people. As these two stories tell their tales, Director Miguel Gomez has a crisis of confidence with his work and flees the film leaving his production crew to search for him.
The Desolate One:
As the film segues to the middle chapter, we follow a man who participates in all sorts of depraved and gluttonous acts and remains emotionally as well as physically unfulfilled. Combined into this story is a look at Portugal's legal and judicial system and the hypocrisies surrounding a single criminal. As these two stories play out, the film juxtaposes the bizarre and arcane aspects of Portugal's history and current difficulties against a microcosm of everyday life as we follow a group of people in an apartment building. Some people are doing well while others struggle just to live on a day to day basis.
The Enchanted One:
This portion of the film begins more fantastical than the other two pulling in a more literal interpretation of the Arabian Nights story while also pulling elements of conflicting musical tastes from ballet to modern hits to convey the changing cultural landscape of the time. Following this, we meet a group of men who are training birds for a performance using music to choreograph their flight. As the strenuous training wears on it's clear to see that what these men are doing is in effect enacting their own downfall.
Miguel Gomes' 'Arabian Nights' is not a film that is going to satisfy or entertain everyone. It's impossible to watch one part without committing to the whole endeavor. At over six hours, 'Arabian Nights' can be at all times exciting, entertaining, thought provoking, difficult, and even outright slow and boring. That isn't to say it's unwatchable or impossible to grasp, but if you're going to enjoy this film on any level what so ever, you have to be in an open and willing mindset. You have to be willing to accept that you're seeing fantasy and reality all at the same time. If you're expecting some sort of instant gratification out of the experience, you're not going to find it. 'Arabian Nights' takes a long time to tell small stories and unless you're giving it your fullest attention, you risk missing everything.
Truth be told, it took me two attempts to start Volume 1: 'The Restless One' before I was able to let myself go and just absorb the film without trying to figure it out as I went. I had to stop being a critic and just view it. I had to shut down my analytical brain completely and only then was I able to get the a thing grasp of what I was seeing. I still don't have a full handle on everything that I saw in this trilogy of films, but I can't deny that I was fascinated by it. I will absolutely be revisiting 'Arabian Nights' again. I may not try to marathon them again in the way that I did for this review, but I am eager to dig into these films and allow myself to be taken in by them one at a time. Perhaps, the best way to state my recommendation for people to see this movie is in just that way, I didn't fully understand everything that I saw, but I feel compelled to see it again very soon. 'Arabian Nights' is a work that needs to be experienced and then re-experienced.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arabian Nights' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber. Each film is pressed onto its own Region A BD50 disc and open directly to their respective main menus featuring standard navigation options. All three discs are housed in a standard 3-Disc Blu-ray case allowing each disc to have its own tray for easy removal. Also included is a booklet containing an incredibly informative essay by Dennis Lim as well as a fascinating "production diary" of sorts apparently written by Miguel Gomes and add some interesting insight to the production.
Each of the three films making up the whole trilogy of 'Arabian Nights' is given a full 1080p transfer maintaining the original 2.35:1 presentation aspect ratio. The image retains a film-like presentation throughout that actually feels like a film shot over forty years ago. it maintains a grittiness to the imagery, the finer details and the color scheme that makes it look and feel older than it is. To that effect, this transfer does an incredible justice to the presentation of each film. Fine details are readily apparent including facial features, clothing, and especially the beautiful Portuguese scenery. Colors are vivid and beautiful throughout and are stable with plenty of primary pop. There are a few sequences here and there where primaries are pushed and that can effect flesh tones and other colors a bit, but that's by the design of the sequence within the film and not a fault of the transfer in any way. Black levels are deep and inky allowing for the film to enjoy some impressive night photography that doesn't lose depth or dimension. Few if any compression artifacts exist making this a beautiful transfer for all three films.
Each film within the 'Arabian Nights' trilogy enjoys a strong Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track with English subtitles. So much of the films' mixes are focused on narrated dialogue that it's difficult to sense much in the way of a surround sound presence. The side and rear channels only really come alive in subtle ways or when a specific sequence demands it. Sound effects, atmospherics, and backgrounds are very subtle throughout the film. You're not really meant to feel like you're actually right there in the thick of the action but instead a distant viewer. it's an interesting mix that maintains the feel of a clinically detached documentary that sounds like something from a Jacques Cousteau nature documentary. It's an interesting presentation to be sure as it's not what some would initially expect, but it works beautifully for these films. By letting the dialogue and detached voices carry the mix it feels more personal and introspective. These mixes may not be the most dynamic surround tracks ever created but they work for what the project is trying to do with its material.
A Conversation with Miguel Gomes: (HD 40:02) From the New York Film Festival, Director Miguel Gomes goes into a lot of detail about the genesis of the idea for the films and the production. It's very interesting to hear him explain his process and his approach to filming material.
Trailer: (HD 2:14)
'Redemption' Short Film: (HD 27:25) This is a short film directed by Miguel Gomes in 2013. As an earlier work than 'Arabian Nights,' it's easy to see the director's unique approach to filmmaking.
If someone was looking for a literal adaptation, this is not that 'Arabian Nights.' Miguel Gomes took inspiration from the structure and themes from the original stories and applied them in a semi-documentary fashion to the history and current state of Portuguese culture. Taken together, the three films are a frustrating yet fascinating accomplishment. Kino Lorber has done a magnificent job bringing these three films together with beautiful image transfers and audio mixes. Extra features though slim are informative, in particular, the essay and production diary contained in the booklet 'Arabian Nights' isn't a film for everyone, but for those willing to completely give themselves over to the material and just let the work surround them, it should be a rewarding experience. Recommended.