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Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini,
In this film inspired by the ancient erotic and mysterious tales of Mid-West Asia, the main story concerns an innocent young man who comes to fall in love with a slave who selected him as her master. After his foolish error causes their separation, he travels in search of her. Various other travelers who recount their own tragic and romantic experiences include stories of a young man who becomes enraptured by a mysterious woman on his wedding day, and a man who is determined to free a woman from a demon. Written by
it shouldn't work, but it does- a series of stories of the bizarre and romantic (or erotic, take your pick)
Whether or not you like some (or just respond positively to some) of Pier Paolo Pasolini's work, or you don't, will depend on how much one can take of provocative subject matter put forward in an upfront manner. For me, he's a director that can go both ways, be it completely muddled and pretentious (Teorema) or almost boring in its S&M tactics of twisted satire (Salo), or actually dramatically engaging (Mamma Roma), and he's never someone who takes the easy road. Arabian Nights is another one, as part of a 'trilogy' of films adapted from famous, erotically-laced works of stories that have scandalized for centuries (the others the Decameron and Canterbury Nights). Once again, Pasolini has a lot of people in his film that aren't actors, or even real extras- sometimes some people will just pop out, or a bunch of kids will run around, and they're plucked right from the scenery. If authentic, film fans, is what you want, Pasonili gives it, in all of the style of a guy out to shoot a documentary on the people in these settings and gets (pleasantly) sidetracked by a bunch of crazy-tragic stories of love and lust in the desert.
As if done in a pre-Pulp Fiction attempt at non-linear storytelling, we get the tale of Zumurrud (Ines Pellegini) and Nur ed din (Franco Merli), one a slave who is bought by the most innocent looking kid in the bunch of bidders. They fall in love, the wise young girl and naive grunt, but they get separated after she gets sold to another man. She escapes, but becomes the unwitting king after she is mistaken for a man. Meanwhile, her young little man is calling after her/him, and getting into his own trouble. Through this framework, we get other stories told of love lost and scrambled; a sad and silly story of a man who's engaged to his cousin, and is thwarted by a mysterious woman who gets his attention, which leads him down a path of semantics (yes, semantics, poetry-style) and sex, leaving his much caring cousin behind. Then there's the man who woos a woman who is under the ownership of a demon, and once their affair is discovered some unexpected things happen via the Demon (Franco Citti, maybe the most bad-ass character in the film despite the surreal-aspect of the showdown). And then one more story, which, hmm....
I could go on making descriptions, but then this wouldn't be much of a review of praise of the picture. Suffice to say it's one of Pasolini's strongest directed efforts, where he's surefire in his consistent usage of the hand-held lens, getting his actors to look sincere through dialog that is half ripped-from-the-pages and half with the sensibility of Pasolini as a poet (yes, I went there in the whole 'he's a poet' thing, but he is in a rough-edged and melodramatic timing and flow). He's also going for an interesting combo; neo-realist settings for a good chunk of the picture, set in and around real locations in areas that don't need much production design, and an epic sweep that includes many extras, some special effects at times (and how about that lion!), and extravagant costumes.
I also liked- if not loved- how Pasonili dealt with sex and more-so the human body itself. It would probably rightfully get an NC-17 if released today in America, and got an X when released in 1980. The dreaded 'thing' of a man is revealed about as often as a cut-away to a master shot of a building. Everything, in fact, is filmed frankly, without the style that tip-toes around the starkness of two people embraced and naked. But it's also not pornographic either; if anything Pasolini perhaps doesn't direct far enough with the sex, as one body just lays still on top of another. There's a specific intent to dealing with sexuality in this world that respects lust and desire from the original text without making it blatant- only in one big instance, involving the fate of the man from the cousin story (the one with Aziz I think) revels in the horror of sex that was delved tenfold in Salo. Add to this the exquisite score from Ennio Morricone, who enriches any scene his score pops up, as a mandolin strings away and the strings rise with just a hint of the sentimental. Without Morricone, in fact, it might not be as emotional a film, when need be.
And lest not forget Arabian Nights can be strangely comical, where Pasolini throws it back at the audience that he knows he's going (rightfully) into the surreal. Like with the story of the Demon and the fate of a man transformed as a chimpanzee, or the vision with the lion, or even the dialog in the pool with the three girls and the man, which is humorous while keeping a tongue-in-cheek. And there's even some good jokes to come out of the obvious step of having Zummurrud as the 'King' when it's clear as day from the Italian dubbing that he's the 'she', so to speak, as it stretches out into a final scene where lovers are united and things are as they should be, however much the director is thumbing his nose at power and sex and the dealings of the heart with organs. Arabian Nights probably couldn't be made today, but could anyone else but Pasolini make it anyway? There's daring in this film, and through the exotic exteriors and sets we see a filmmaker working along like there's nothing else to stop him, for better or worse. This time for the better.
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