'Arabian Nights — Volume 1, The Restless One' ('As mil e uma noites — Volume 1, o inquieto'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
People in crisis and flights of fancy come together in this frequently fascinating collage of stories

The first part of Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes' three-part saga looks at the restlessness that has taken hold of a country in crisis

This could be the “dumbest idea ever,” admits Miguel Gomes early on his Arabian Nights — Volume 1, The Restless One (As mil e uma noites — Volume 1, o inquieto). But the maverick Portuguese director of challenging but immensely satisfying features such as Tabu and Our Beloved Month of August forges ahead and tries anyway. The task? To make a movie that’s both a seductive and beautiful feat of storytelling as well as a work that doesn’t ignore the ugly realities of present-day Portugal’s economy and morale, which have been teetering perilously close to bankruptcy since the crisis hit in 2010.

Though somewhat hard to judge as a stand-alone item, with volumes two and three presented only later in the Directors’ Fortnight, this first part is jam-packed with ideas as it crosses back and forth between fiction and documentary, fables and real life, voiceovers and illustrative material. If anything, Nights feels like a testament to the power of stories to entertain and make one forget one’s worries as much as crystallize these worries and bring them to a bigger audience, educating some while making others understand they are not alone.

With each of the Arabian Nights films running just over two hours, the entire three-film package will be a complicated theatrical proposal beyond home turf and co-producing France. Festivals and cinematheques, however, will be willing takers and some innovative distributors might be tempted by the possibilities of a VOD release supported by one-off theatrical events, such as special Arabian Nights nights.

See more Cannes: The Red-Carpet Arrivals (Photos)

The formally playful but tonally serious first half-hour combines the stories of three types of workers, all in crisis. Firstly, there are the over 600 shipyard workers from Viana do Castelo, in the very north of Portugal, who have been laid off. Their story, recounted in images of the shipyard that are combined with voiceovers of several workers who share their memories, is intercut with the much smaller account of a local apiarist who’s been fighting an invasive Asian wasp species that threatens to decimate his bees. The latter story carries a clear metaphorical meaning but also highlights some unwelcome practical realties of contemporary Portugal, where fire brigades refuse to assist because they claim to have neither the equipment nor the personnel or, it seems, any willingness to help. Finally, the third worker is Gomes himself, who is seen literally running from his responsibilities when he realizes the impossible task before him.

The director’s storytelling job thus falls to his fictional protagonist, Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), though an early title card has already warned audiences that the film’s not a direct adaptation of the eponymous literary work but merely borrows its tales-within-tales structure. She’s also barely glimpsed in volume one, though Alfaiate, like most of the actors, plays several roles, including a punk-rock chick who’s prominently featured later. After a brief, five-minute detour to the Island of the Young Virgins of Baghdad — a beautifully conceived but conceptually somewhat murky sequence that combines period props and costumes with modern gear — the film launches into the first of its three proper tales: "The Men With a Hard-On." What initially seems like a rather serious re-creation of a troika meeting, where the debts of Portugal to foreign powers and entities like the International Monetary Fund are discussed, slowly devolves into an absurd and comic tale where an interpreter (Carloto Cotta, the dashing lead from Tabu) translates from English into bad Brazilian Portuguese and a Francophone African wizard (Basirou Diallo) shows up with an aerosol spray that magically cures the impotence of the world leaders and financiers, which in turn seems to lead to Portugal getting better terms to pay off their debts.  

Besides hinting at Gomes' continued interest in reverse- and post-colonialism issues, this segment’s unusual combination of lowbrow humor, high-finance issues and magic also manages to touch on several problems that have crippled a country (and its population) that has frequently felt impotent itself over the last few years. As per an onscreen explanation, the stories are inspired by things that actually occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014. Several journalists handed these news items to the screenwriters, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro (also one of the editors) and Gomes, who used them as the basis for their often more fantastical tales.

This is the case for "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire," which is really two yarns that happen in the same vineyard-surrounded village. A judge puts a cockerel on trial for crowing too early, while three young kids are entangled in an affair of the heart that’s mostly conducted via text message. As in each tale, there are symbolical meanings — the cockerel brings one of the country’s national symbols, the Rooster of Barcelos, to mind — and there are some chuckles to be had when the cock ends up getting a fair share of votes in a municipal election (clearly out of frustration with the other political options). But overall, this section feels the most unwieldy and unfocused; it’s never really clear how all the disparate elements should function together.

The last section, "The Swim of the Magnificents," most clearly harkens back to Gomes’ use of elements from the documentary genre, as seen in August. It features a trade unionist (Adriano Luz, earlier seen in "The Men With a Hard-On") interviewing unemployed citizens ahead of a traditional dip in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day. Their stories about surviving without a salary or any prospects are simultaneously touching and enraging, and Gomes brilliantly contrasts these testimonies with the fable-like image of a gigantic beached whale that explodes, which in turn affords a small mermaid that must’ve been swallowed whole an unexpected rebirth and second chance at life. 

Shot on a mixture of 16mm and 35mm widescreen by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, this Restless One has a textured, slightly color-drained look that brings to mind a mythical, exotic past that’s frequently visually referenced — in the choice, for example, of camels as mounts for the troika members — while also suggesting the current hardships and not exactly colorful prospects of the Portuguese nation.

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
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: Match Factory

No rating, 126 minutes