A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
In the third and final section of his “Arabian Nights” cycle, “The Enchanted One," director Miguel Gomes finally invites us to consider the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s final film, the bountifully grim “Salò," has come to dwarf much of his earlier work, but just before he turned away from the beauty of existence, he directed his trilogy of life. “The Canterbury Tales," “The Decameron” and “Arabian Nights” were each omnibus films comprised of erotic and comic tales of ancient cultures, and they shared a love for endless, dirty landscapes, naked, idealized bodies and the art of storytelling itself. After two film’s worth of parable and metaphor, Gomes’ lets Pasolini’s own “Arabian Nights” influence his images, as well as his structure. As the themes, characters and ideas from the first two parts begin to reappear, so too do full-figured women and gorgeous, semi-nude men right out of the earthly kingdoms of Pasolini.
“The Enchanted One” starts with Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate for a third time) and her father, the Grand Vizier, both filled with regret and longing. The old man wishes to free his daughter from her marriage to the bloodthirsty king, and misses his long dead wife, whose ghost dances in his mind’s eye. Scheherazade dreams of the country she will die to protect, and its many humble subjects. She leaves the kingdom and encounters a diver named Lionel who loves her from afar, a flamboyant genie of the wind, Elvis the bandit, who steals to live and dances for fun, and blonde pin-up Paddleman. Paddleman looks like he swam right out of Pasolini’s subconscious, from his curly mop to his ruddy skin and svelte figure, to his charmingly dim wit. When his children ask him questions, Paddleman stares dumbly while Scherehazade answers the questions his children pose about the nature of the world. Paddleman and Scheherazade find an archipelago of thieves and listen to psychedelic Tropicalia while the sun goes down. But Scheherazade knows this peace cannot last, and after telling Paddleman that he’s far too dumb to settle down with (but, she hopefully tells him, “you are somewhat radiant”) she leaves the archipelago. She has one more tale to the tell the king.
“The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” is the last story Scheherazade tells. It’s an hour-long documentary about a songbird competition, the center of many men’s lives. It’s a fascinating chapter of the movie, but also, formally at odds with everything that’s come before it, so it may wind up being any given viewer’s favorite or least favorite chapter, depending on how well the ambling post-modernism of the build-up has sat thus far. The dry objectivity Gomes adopts makes “Chorus” the least engrossing, grammatically speaking, of all of the strands of “Arabian Nights,” however, the tale of the chaffinches is undeniably rich and tragic.
The birds were discovered by Portuguese soldiers in the trenches of World War I, and brought home, one presumes so that their song could brighten the lives of every battle scarred man returning from the front. The training of the birds, pulling specific forms of song from each generation of finch, has taken up the free hours of hundreds of men since those days. In the 90s, a whole generation of finch were killed in an accident and that song will never be heard again. Gomes believes that the men who train the finches now are haunted and obsessed by the lost song, which is a neat little metaphor for so much of the culture obliterated by the government’s economic austerity. When one of the birder’s breaks down crying after the death of his prized finch, we know why he loses his cool in front of his peers. The song of the finches is precious and unique to each bird. When they die they take the song with them, never to be heard again.