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The art house equivalent of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the second part in Portuguese maverick Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy, The Desolate One, is an appropriately striking, dramatic and even mirthful work that, however, would make little sense on its own. A Lusophone Scheherazade here narrates three more tales, with the last subdivided into another three parts, and Gomes tries to get to the heart of the messy matter that is the state of his country. Though screened as three separate films on three different days in Cannes — which cannot help but recall the way in which the literary Scheherazade leaves her audience hanging at the end of each night — this is really one long six-hour-plus opus that’ll no-doubt be part of numerous marathon screenings at festivals and cinema-loving institutions such as cinematheques.
Part one suggested contemporary Portugal was a restless nation, and part two further explores the notion that the severe austerity measures “executed by a government devoid of social justice,” as per onscreen text, have thrown the country into disarray and despair, though some hope always remains.
The first of the three stories recounted here is the oddly titled, 37-minute yarn “The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao ‘Without Bowels.'” Chico Chapas plays the titular lead here, and his somewhat haggard appearance but limber movements and scrawny frame are perfect for this story of an old man, Simao, who never gets fat even though he eats a lot — hence the suggestion he doesn’t have any bowels — and who roams the countryside without a fixed abode, trying to elude the police, who are looking for him for several murders. For six weeks, 160 policemen were looking for him, Scheherazade tells us, but Gomes is not interested in the police-hunt aspect of the story. Instead, he stays close to Simao, which suggests how hard it is to survive off the grid in contemporary Europe but also, in an ironic turn of events, shows how someone with several murders to his name nonetheless became a local hero simply because he managed to defy the much-hated authorities for so long. Clearly, the enemy’s enemy is a friend even in crisis-hit Portugal.
The main event in part two, and the most overtly political segment of the entirely trilogy, is the second tale, “The Tears of the Judge.” In a theatrically decked-out outdoor amphitheater, a stern female judge (Fernanda Loureiro), clad in Bordeaux-colored velvet robes, hears a case that starts out quite simply but quickly grows so convoluted that everyone in the audience turns out to be implicated. The absurdity of the plotting here, as the arbitrator tries to uncover the causes of a single criminal act but instead wades deeper and deeper into a morass of interconnected causes, suggests how criminal behavior can’t be understood on a simple case-by-case basis in which one cause leads to one effect. Instead, the whole system that surrounds the desperate acts of desperate people needs to be taken into consideration and improved so these acts won’t happen in the future. Full of theatrical speeches and flashes of mordant humor, such as when Gomes brings on a “lie detector” in the shape of a machete-wielding man, the outcome of this 40-minute segment is finally utterly depressing.
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The placement of parts one and two is vital here, as the crimes committed by Simao (several murders, never further explained) could, one imagines, be at least partially blamed on the diseased system that creates outcasts, as put forward in part two. Gomes also suggests at one point that evil men come about because of “extreme selfishness,” an idea that fits snugly alongside the notion that circumstances probably play a larger role than character when it comes to criminal behavior. However, and as in part one, there are some fleeting scenes, here for example sketching the sex life of the daughter of the judge in literally bloody detail, that feel only very tangentially related to the material. And another of the film’s constants, the objectification of naked women, may also not be to the taste of everyone.
The density and constant twists and turns of the Judge segment stand in stark contrast to the lightness of touch of part three, “The Owners of Dixie,” a compilation of short moments involving the titular dog (and Palm Dog winner) Dixie, a cross of a Maltese terrier and poodle. There are quite a few funny episodes here, and some odd musical cues, including Lionel Richie, also provide levity and a welcome sense of surprise. But there’s no denying that the dog owners’ often silly escapades — which include dealing with a broken elevator that won’t open because revelers at a party urinated down the shaft; naked Brazilian sunbathers; and kids looking at the neighbors having sex via a hole in the wall — are happening to people who have to rely on food banks, might be forced to move out because of money problems, or even make suicide pacts. Finding the right tone for this combination of airy divertissement and melancholy austerity drama, which compresses the joys and sorrows of an entire nation into a single tower block, is without a doubt Gomes’ biggest accomplishment in part two.
Production companies: O Som e a Furia, Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Productions, Agat Films, Michel Merkt
Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Adriano Luz, Americo Silva, Rogerio Samora, Carloto Cotta, Fernanda Loureiro, Chico Chapas
Director: Miguel Gomes
Screenplay: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro
Producers: Luus Urbano, Sandro Aguilar, Thomas Ordonneau, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Elena Tatti, Thierry Spicher, Elodie Brunner
Executive producer: Luis Urbano
Director of photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Production designers: Bruno Duarte, Artur Pinheiro
Costume designers: Silvia Grabowski, Lucha D’Orey
Editors: Telmo Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques, Miguel Gomes
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 131 minutes
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