Cannes: 'Arabian Nights' Offers a Fantastical Take on Portugal Crisis

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Miguel Gomes’ three-part Directors’ Fortnight entry uses tall tales to offer allegorical commentary on the challenges facing his country.

Miguel Gomes was in the midst of shooting his last film, the Berlin festival award winner Tabu, when the economic crisis hit his native Portugal. He had been planning a drama set in Mexico for his next project, but seeing the devastation sweeping over his country, he knew he had to react.

“I forgot the Mexican film and I thought, ‘Let’s try and make something on what is happening in Portugal today,’ ” Gomes says.

He hired three journalists to research real stories of the impact the crisis was having on the Portuguese, and a crew of screenwriters to turn those stories into fiction. But instead of taking the social-realistic approach, Gomes added another twist: structuring his stories in the form of allegorical tales, like those in 1,001 Arabian Nights.

“I had before the idea to do this impossible project, to make an adaptation of Arabian Nights. But I think even if Cecil B. DeMille was alive today, he couldn’t do it because it is a huge book — it would have to be a megablockbuster. Instead I thought I would use the idea of Arabian Nights, the structure, to tell the stories about Portugal.”

Like the original, Gomes’ Arabian Nights, which The Match Factory is selling in Cannes, also features a Scheherazade — a woman who tells stories within stories. But her tales are set in Lisbon, not the Middle East. “It is not an adaptation of the book, it is using the character of Scheherazade to tell stories that are as absurd, sometimes comically, and as fantastic as the tales in Arabian Nights.”

In Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a prime minister can turn into a chicken, and animals — and even trees — may talk. In some of the tales, real-life people play versions of themselves; others feature actors in stories nearly completely fictional. The director shot the film over the course of a full year, gathering stories and making tale aŽfter tale. When he was finished, he had hours of footage. And a major problem: “I had signed a contract that the film could not go over three hours and 30 minutes, which is already very long.”

In the end, Gomes convinced his producers to let him make three separate features, with a total running time of nearly six-and-a-half hours.

When Cannes picked Arabian Nights for the festival, they initially suggested showing all three films back to back in one marathon session. Gomes chose instead an even odder approach: to screen the three movies in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section over three separate nights.

“It’s a challenge, I know, but I see it like a soap opera running during the festival, something you can watch and come back to,” the director says. “Also it matches the form of the real Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade interrupts her story every night to create the desire to hear it the following night.”

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