Arabian Nights: The Tales of the Anti-Conformist

Portuguese Director Miguel Gomes Tackles Austerity Politics in a Radical Enchantment

Courtesy of Cannes Festival

After leaving a strong mark on contemporary cinema with the internationally acclaimed Tabu (2012), Miguel Gomes strikes again with Arabian Nights, a tale in three volumes: The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One.

Selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Festival (2015), Arabian Nights oscillates between a documentary style and a fantastic tale. Through this surrealist light, the film gives a poignant representation of modern-day Portugal—a country ravaged by its recent economic recession and the austerity measures imposed by the European troika, made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 

Gomes deliberately shied away from the naturalistic turn that European mainstream cinema has taken in recent decades. The cineaste chose instead to structure his film around the mythological tales of the Arabian Nights, upon which he superimposes a collection of micro-stories centered on Portugal’s working-class heroes.

Not only does this particular approach give him a great deal of artistic freedom in his treatment of the fantastic genre, but it also enables the director to intertwine his imaginative, poetic vision with an often sombre reality. 

The princess Scheherazade thus impersonates the narrator and tells her stories to an evil king to escape decapitation. The enchanted stories she recounts are those of the people of Portugal, a country submitted to a political regime that denies any form of social justice.

In an interview he gave with the French magazine Politis, Gomes explains how this approach fits in with his conception of the role that films have to play within society.

“This very realistic European cinema is actually extremely coded and includes a number of social and psychological stereotypes,” Gomes said. “The cinema that amazed me when I was young were films like The Wizard of Oz. I side with Hitchcock when he says, ‘Cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.’”

If Gomes decided to side with fiction for the realization of his trilogy, he nonetheless researched the reality quite thoroughly in preparation for the film. The filmmaker worked hand in hand with a group of journalists who scanned local papers in search of news stories that dealt with the ways in which austerity affected different communities and individuals. 

Thanks to this research, Gomes was able to develop unique and complex characters in Arabian Nights that are directly inspired from some of the stories he found. In the first film, The Restless One, one of the sequences shows a series of testimonies from people who lost their jobs due to the economic recession. Unlike numbers, statistics or cold facts, these testimonies reveal the consequences of the politics of austerity on a human level. 

“On one side, the film shows people who are not very active, who have bad conditions of living but who do nothing to change them,” he told Politis. “On the other side, their every move fascinates the camera. And their stories, simple as they may be, say a lot on who they are, their habits and culture.” 

In fact, an important part of this culture includes the animal kingdom. From symbolic omen to symptoms of a diseased world, the animal and its relationship to mankind accounts for one the leitmotifs of the triptych. In the third volume, The Enchanted One, more than half of the film focuses on a group of men living in the slums of Lisbon’s periphery. The group illicitly raise and teach finches how to sing. There is a direct analogy between the men and the finches, the cages, the prisons and the social housing. The filmmaker spent more than 150 hours interviewing the men participating in these finch-singing competitions. 

A whole subculture revolves around them, as Gomes explains in an interview he gave to Télérama last June. 

“They made me enter a coded world, secret and clandestine, because their practices are illegal,” he said. “These characters evoke for me Springsteen’s rock or Borges’ books. They live in the margins of society and nobody knows that they exist.”