Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One



Portugal’s Miguel Gomes has created an extraordinary work in three volumes which now open in London one by one in successive weeks.


Arabian Nights Volume One

I was bowled over by the highly original Tabu (2012) the film in which Miguel Gomes paid homage to silent cinema through a touching story that took in both colonial life in the 1920s and recent times in Lisbon. But other films by Gomes that I have seen have left me more puzzled than intrigued by his avant-garde tendencies and the three volumes of Arabian Nights fit that pattern all too well.

Each of the three films is based on the same concept: a borrowing of the structure of the famous 1001 Nights which described how Scheherazade preserved her life by telling nightly tales to her master who was always left wanting to hear more. Gomes may refer to ancient Baghdad but the tales his Scheherazade tells are all linked to the state of Portugal as it suffers from the economic crisis all too apparent there in 2013 and 2014. If you see just Volume 1, then you will find its preface is followed by three titled stories, The Men with Hard-ons, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire and The Swim of the Magnificents (the latter itself incorporating three extra distinct tales within its main narrative).

The preface gives us a glimpse of Gomes himself as a filmmaker who seems to realise that his wish to make films centred on contemporary social realism but also to encompass fables and fantastical tales is an impossible task. Yet Arabian Nights is an attempt to do just that, but with very mixed results. The first item, The Men with Hard-ons contains an element close to Carry On comedy as it deals with negotiations in Portugal for loans from the IMF: it’s a coarse fairy tale that sets out to show that those with political power are all fools, but it lacks a real pay-off. The second tale offers fantasy of a different kind with a court case against an animal, a cock that crows: the judge speaks the language of animals and the cock is given a voice. There’s a subsidiary love story, a romantic triangle commented on by the actors appearing in these roles.

The final tale in Volume 1 is about a planned swim on 1st January 2014, but what really counts here are the three personal testimonies inserted. These illustrate the plight of the unemployed and if the surrounding narrative is Felliniesque on occasion, these statements seem absolutely real. If they provide the most memorable sequences here, that fact throws into question the effectiveness of the eccentricity that dominates elsewhere. However, the film’s oddities make it too surprising to be boring and it is well photographed throughout.




Cast: Crista Alfalate, Bassirou Diallo, Luís Loureiro, Carlos Loureiro, Sabrina Lopes, Margarida Rabaça, Adriano Luz, Anibal Fabrica, Rui Silva, Sónia Vieira, Paulo Carvalho, Miguel Gomes.

Dir Miguel Gomes, Pro Luis Urbano and Sandro Aguilar, Screenplay Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro, Ph Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and Mário Castanheira, Art Dir Bruno Duarte and Artur Pinheiro, Ed Telmo Churro, Pedro Filipe Marques and Miguel Gomes, Costumes Silvia Grabowski and Lucha d’Orey.

O Som e a Fúria/Shellac Sud/ARTE France Cinéma/ZDF ARTE etc.-New Wave Films.
125 mins. Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland. 2015. Rel: 22 April 2016. Cert. 12A