For its first 40 or so minutes, Arabian Nights, Volume 3: The Enchanted One—the final part of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ ambitious Arabian Nights project—plays like a time-machine accident, warping jewels-and-hookah-smoke Arabian imagery into vintage pop songs, as Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) travels to an archipelago of bandits, break-dancers, and wind spirits, their absurd backstories relayed through dozens of explanatory titles. (“In the Antiquity Of Time, there lived a man named Paddleman,” begins one.) And then, after all that buildup, the movie breaks out of this Holy Mountain-on-a-shoestring world to present the most outlandish story of all—which, it turns out, is a documentary about working-class birdsong hobbyists in present-day Portugal. At first, this seems like a gag, except that it keeps going, until the audience realizes that almost an hour has passed, and they’re still watching a documentary about birdsong hobbyists. Then one of the birdsong hobbyists meets a djinn.
Call it Gomes’ Chi-Raq: Taking inspiration from an older storytelling mode (“This film is not an adaptation of the book Arabian Nights, despite drawing on its structure,” reads a title card), the filmmaker funnels his feelings about Portuguese life in the age of the austerity measure into a six-hour-plus spread of stories-within-stories, filmed mostly in grainy anamorphic 16mm. From the opening of Volume 1: The Restless One, in which laid-off workers from the Viana De Costelo shipyard reminisce about the wonder they felt as children at the docks, to the birdsong documentary in Volume 3, the point remains the same: That stories of ordinary life are as worthy of being told as those full of treasures and fantastic voyages, and that what had happened in his country was a tragedy of the kind that didn’t captivate people’s imaginations, because it involved unsexy subjects like industry and the livelihoods of the working class. Arabian Nights locks ordinary struggles and scrubby Portuguese country sides into Byzantine framing devices, faithful to the credo that any story can be interesting if it’s told in an interesting way.
But just in case, Gomes’ anti-epic also continually lays out its terms, bargaining for the viewer’s attention, giving jolts of fantasy and flourishes of scrappy bravura filmmaking (including some really potent uses of pop music) in exchange for the time needed to appreciate the mundane. Perhaps it’s being done a disservice by the broken-up release, spread out over weeks; only Volume 3 can really stand on its own as a feature, with Volume 1 and Volume 2 (subtitled The Desolate One) being movie-sized scrapbooks, compelling in part because the audience knows that they are chunks of something bigger. Which is to say that if Arabian Nights is about anything other than the sad state of Portugal, it’s about the contract between teller and listener, figurated here in the legend of Scheherazade, whose life is spared every night so she can tell a story the next. Maybe there is an implicit irony in the fact that so much of the language of storytelling mirrors the language of finance (e.g., we lend an ear), and that, by translating the social aftermath of Portugal’s debt crisis into a series of stories, Gomes has traded one set of contracts and loans for another.
That probably makes Arabian Nights sound dry and concept-heavy, which it mostly isn’t; even Gomes’ thesis-stating on-camera appearances in Volume 1 are parodic. Fighting misery means having fun, which is what filmmaking is supposed to be, and, despite its lengths and scope, Arabian Nights always feels handmade. Actors play multiple roles: Alfaiate has five in total, including Scheherazade, and the wiry Chico Chapas, one of the birdsong hobbyists profiled in Volume 3, first pops up in Volume 2 as a murderer on the run from the law in a story titled “The Chronicle Of The Escape Of Simao ‘Without Bowels.’” But, of course, Arabian Nights’ off-the-cuff, community-theater vibe ends up underlining its origins as a creative reaction to social and economic crisis. The movies may be, in part, about fantasy, but they always look like they’re from somewhere very real.