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Nelson Pereira dos Santos,
Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
A binge-watching of Portuguese auteur-in-the-making Miguel Gomes' Herculean ARABIAN NIGHTS trilogy, his fourth feature, the much-anticipated follow-up after TABU (2012), his critically acclaimed present/past diptych stunner.
Consciously informing audience beforehand with its caption - "The film is not an adaptation of the book ARABIAN NIGHTS despite drawing on its structure", the three volumes of ARABIAN NIGHTS constitute an expansive ethnic dissection of Portugal's burning mire, all the stories told by Scheherazade (Alfaiate) stem from events confined within a single calendar year from August 2013 to July 2014 in Portugal, when its people are stricken with economic austerity and become impoverished, implement by the government which Gomez denounces devoid of social justice.
Volume 2 augurs well for the final volume of the sage, the Enchanted One, seemingly out of a mandatory impulse, Gomez starts with the story of Scheherazade, who has become jaded in her role as a raconteur, she wanders around the island, bemoans that there are so many thing she has never seen, in spite of being the Queen of the kingdom, after brief encounters with sundry characters, including a breeding stud, the Apollonian Paddleman (Cotta, in his dazzling blond allure), an ingenious upside-down shot reveals the other side of her world, the latter-day Portugal, then Scheherazade reunites with her father, the Grand Vizier (Silva) on a Ferris Wheel.
Then, the bulk of Volume 3 is dedicated to the Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches, a documentary steadfastly recounts the lives and back stories of the miscellaneous bird lovers living in a shanty town near the airport, where is famous for its chaffinches contest, and the bird- trapping expertise, ultimately it runs the risk of becoming a drag for non-enthusiats of this particular hobby for over-staying its welcome, albeit Gomez's fervent resolution to observing the working class, in hope of sympathy and empathy could be induced through his unyielding effort.
At this step, a litany of detailed texts supplants the voice-over in the narrative, which strains a viewer's concentration, aggravated by the unvarying repetitions of chronological passing, as if the fatigue vicariously transmitted from Scheherazade to viewers, is it doomed to be the last story from her? Gomez even sandwiches a narrative-only snippet in between the docu-disquisition, named Hot Forest, it is told in Mandarin from a Chinese student, who encounters a Portuguese policeman during a police demonstration, becomes his mistress, gets pregnant, then deserted and extradited back to China, where on the screen, some archives of demonstrations are used as the story's visual complement. Interestingly, in this rather thoroughbred ethnological study, Chinese becomes the only intrusion among all three volumes, maybe Gomez intends to signal a warning, please be alert, Europe, the Chinese are coming!
Seen from a bigger picture, this ambitious passion project undeniably demands some formidable perseverance and energy to carry it off, whether its mammoth scale, its comprehensive execution or the lofty vocation to pinpoint a troubled society, each alone could be too overwhelming to debase its holistic value. But individually speaking, it is a portfolio composed of patchy works and buttressed by a miscellany of eclectic music selections. Volume 2 is absolutely the high water mark in comparison, which bears witness to Gomez's humanistic tendre in spirit and facility for conjuring up masterclass artistry in action, that's something worth expecting, hopefully in a more condense structure.
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