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The third and last volume of Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, his gargantuan compilation of tales of austerity and oppression, is called The Enchanted One, no-doubt because it contains the one tale in which enchantress and narrator Scheherazade, played by Crista Alfaiate, actually takes center stage. This again ambitious work is the most prominently hybrid of the three installments, as it weaves together a willingly anachronistic first part, containing elements of filmed theater and flights of narrative fancy, with a sprawling but often soberly observed story about bird trappers that’s feels almost entirely documentary in nature. Though pretty much of a piece with the other two features, there’s no real sense of closure, which might be part of Gomes’s point. The effects of the financial crisis in Portugal are still being felt, and more stories could be told, after all. But the open-endedness of the final film might frustrate at least a part of the audience that’s sat down for the trilogy’s punishing total running time of 381 minutes.
Of all the stories that Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) recounts in the three films, the one in which she herself is the star is without a doubt the most lushly imagined. Shot at the evocative Chateau d’If, with no attempt made to hide the modern buildings of Marseilles in the background, this costume film-within-a-film introduces both herself and her father, the Grand Vizier (Americo Silva), in exotic getups that recall an Orientalist idea of the Middle East more than any costume anyone from the region might have actually worn at any point in time (much the same could be said about a brief interlude involving camels in part one). As Scheherazade continues to tell her stories each night in a bid to stay alive, the Grand Vizier fears she’ll soon run out of steam, and is at the same time reminded of the face of his dearly departed wife each time he lays eyes on his daughter.
In its combination of mix-and-match cultural-historical appropriation, swooning romanticism and sheer storytelling skills — which help locate real human emotions, such as the father’s trepidation and melancholy, in what’s an intentionally theatrical and artificial construct — this segment most clearly brings to mind Gomes’ celebrated Tabu. However, Scheherazade’s episode here lacks that film’s compactness and focus, as it meanders from the castle to the “Baghdad Archipelago,” where she meets a variety of characters including the well-endowed Paddle Man (Carloto Cotta), who has 200 children, and Elvis, a robber and dancer who’s one of the film’s most joyous elements, at least until his tragic demise (referred to in a note onscreen but never actually seen).
It’s hard to know just we are supposed to read the fairytale figures — such as this happy thief — in the context of a film about a nation in a deep economical and psychological crisis, though it’s clear Gomes wants to suggest something about the transporting power of storytelling and the human need for stories in general. “From the wishes and fears of men, stories are born,” it is noted at one point, and they “help us survive”.
The majority of the third film’s two-hour running time, roughly 80 minutes, is dedicated to The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches, which chronicles the world of some Lisbon-area bird trappers who try to teach their chaffinches different songs for birdsong competitions. Reminiscent of the deferential and somewhat languid non-fiction look at his fellow countrymen at leisure in Our Beloved Month of August, this documentary-ish feature explores a small group of friends led by birdsong expert and trapper extraordinaire Chico Chapas (real name: Francisco Gaspar, and earlier seen in part two as “Simao Without Bowels,” his acting debut).
Though their world is fascinating, here too, the question becomes how everything that happens here can be tied into the film’s larger objectives. Many of the bird trappers are unemployed men from Portugal’s impoverished working class, and some particular shots, such as the sight of a man who’s pretending to be a bird trapped in a huge net, clearly they have some metaphorical value. But there’s never quite enough here to warrant this section’s feature-length running time in the overall scheme of things. Indeed, there’s a sense that this storyline could very well have worked as a standalone documentary of some 50-odd minutes, which suggests its underground links to the other parts of Arabian Nights are not all that strong. Unlike parts one and two, which also featured fictional and more documentary-like elements, the two here are more extreme examples of both and thus reinforce each other’s differences more than that they ultimately find unity and coherence in their shared aspects.
The energy level of the third part is also something of a problem, as enormous amounts of information are relegated to onscreen texts in both sections, while part two is especially light on direct dialogue. Apart from Hot Forest, a short but jam-packed interlude during Chaffinches that recounts, mostly in voice-over, the tale of a Chinese girl who came to Portugal during a difficult time, the tone is often less one of quiet despair or a faint glimmer of hope than borderline soporific. With all this taken into account, the third film feels like something of a hushed downer after parts one and two, while the fact that there’s no real conclusion both hurts the individual parts of this film as well as the project’s overall impact and value.
Costume designers Silvia Grabowski and Lucha D’Orey clearly had a ball dressing up all the actors in Scheherazade’s fantastical entourage, while cinematographers Lisa Persson, who shot the Chaffinches material, and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who shot the rest, are superbly synched and deliver such evocative work on 16mm and 35mm that it would be hard to argue that digital is the only option for filmmakers now.
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: Luis 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, Lisa Persson
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, 125 minutes
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