A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
If someone asked me about America as I understood it, I’d play them Interpol’s “Turn on the Bright Lights” and tell them this made the world just a tiny bit straighter for me after 9/11, and scored my first relationship. I’d tell them my great grandmother ran away from her impending marriage and joined the circus. I’d relate the story of my heroes Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, and how gorgeous I’d always found it that two kindred spirits found each other despite their apparent differences. I’d tell them that our country was where studio filmmaking was perfected, and that I’m sometimes a little worried that its rewards keep people placated while the rich get richer and gun violence runs rampant. Emmett Till, Elaine May, the Rosenbergs, Stanley Kauffmann, Michael Brown, Warren Zevon, Charles Burnett and Eugene McCarthy. The good and the bad. That’s the America I know. Everyone has a different version of the land they live in, and they only know so much, but that little bit contains multitudes. That is the impetus behind Miguel Gomes’ latest film "Arabian Nights" … or, maybe series of films is a more apt description. It’s a six-hour movie with a tonal and thematic through-line split into three two-hour sections. His wish is to tell the world about the Portugal he knows and the many, many pieces that make it whole.
It begs pronouncement, first and foremost, that "Arabian Nights" should be watched all at once. Its parts, though cheerfully beguiling on their own, sing a more coherent song when watched end to end. They conclude powerfully after six hours. That’s not to say you should wait if you don’t want to. They’re delightful experiences, breezily stylish and full of life, but there’s a reason Gomes felt the need to make as much of this film as he did. There’s a lot of Portugal, much of it being driven into poorly kept history books by the current government, and he wanted to pay tribute to all of it.
"Volume 1, The Restless One," as he’s subtitled it, is most overtly about the Portuguese government’s version of trickle-down economics and the way it crushes hope among the working class. We open on a shipyard, the subject of a labor strike. Gomes observes the sad, damp workplace setting unused while on the soundtrack we hear the stories of men who used to animate the big cranes. The giant machines slumber as every worker tells us what it meant to have a job, to keep the country humming. Then slowly the accounts turn dark. Broken bones and chipped teeth from strike breakers start appearing. We see a lonely news crew covering the incident, one gathers, days after the worst of the violence has subsided. That’s why Gomes is here, physically, spiritually and morally. To make sure that this story will be covered in more depth than a single news crew can manage. That’s why "Arabian Nights" is six hours long. That strike is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle that, once completed, depicts misery, violence, avarice and confusion, but also hope, freedom and solidarity.
Gomes and his crew come next, filming themselves in preparation for their undertaking—making the movie we’re watching. The camera finds Gomes sitting alone on a bench surrounded by his crew. After getting a sickly look on his face, he shiftily excuses himself from his seat and runs away from his crew. Impotence, he calls it, in voice-over. Terror at not knowing how to continue with the film. “I’m stupid and abstraction gives me vertigo,” he offers as the reason why he can’t link the strike at the shipyard to something else that interests him, a plague of hornets decimating the local bee population. Then he tells both stories simultaneously and the link presents itself, as if by magic. Not so abstract any longer. Gomes begs that the viewer remember the confidence he instills in this flourish as he weaves the complex tapestry that is his Portugal. He has many vignettes, many tangents, many fables, parables and modernized myths in store, and if you remember how neatly he can tie together bees and striking laborers, you’ll never forget that all of this vertigo-inducing abstraction will become a strong whole.
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