Volume 1, The Restless One. This is the first part of a trilogy, or triptych, by Portuguese director/auteur Miguel Gomes, which opened in Paris last month to dithyrambic reviews. As I have been more or less riveted to Greece and the EU over the past three or so weeks, it seems logical to have a post on this film and at this moment, as its subject is precisely the deleterious effects that the European Union’s austerian policies have had on Portugal with the crisis that began in 2008-09.
The film is an original—if not idiosyncratic—presentation of the manner in which the crisis has affected that country. Quoting from this pre-projection dispatch in Screen Daily
Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a contemporary re-telling of One Thousand and One Nights, is set to premiere in Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival (May 13-24).
“Arabian Nights, the film – or, even better, the three miraculous films – by Miguel Gomes, will be premiering at the Directors’ Fortnight,” said Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Edouard Waintrop.
“The breathtaking triptych is inspired by the tales told by Scheherazade and by some events that occurred in Portugal between 2013 and 2014, while the country was subjected to a political power denying all forms of social justice. It will set the pace of our program. Each film, directed with a wild fantasy and a great freedom, will have its day.”
Set against the background of the economic crisis in Portugal, a contemporary Scheherazade paints a picture of the country’s woes, across three episodes: Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; and Volume 3, The Enchanted One.
The Portuguese economic and social crisis, recounted via The Arabian Nights‘s Scheherazade, updated for our present era and with stories that have actually happened in Portugal these past few years. What an original idea for a film. And Hollywood press critics, who saw “Volume 1” at Cannes, indeed piled on the praise. Variety’s Jay Weissberg, whose reviews are always reliable, thus began his
The first installment of Miguel Gomes’ trio of pics acts as a melancholy paean to a broken Portugal and a denunciation of European financial control.
The number of films dealing head-on with the global economic crisis have been shockingly few, leaving the field wide open for someone with the creative complexity and storytelling verve of Miguel Gomes, whose three-part “Arabian Nights” tackles the subject with characteristic imagination and, unsurprisingly, righteous anger. While too early to tell how the trio of pics hang together, it’s possible to say from “Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One,” that audiences are in for a meaty opus that weaves actuality and allegorical fantasy into an outraged portrait of European austerity, witch doctors, the Portuguese politicos at their beck and call, and, most importantly, the unemployed masses. (…)
And this from The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij’s review’s “Bottom Line”: “People in crisis and flights of fancy come together in this frequently fascinating collage of stories.” And then there’s Indie Wire’s Oliver Lyttelton, who simply said that Miguel Gomes’s triptych was “astonishing.” No less.
As the last film I saw by Miguel Gomes, the 2012 ‘Tabu’, was quite good and original, and in view of the US reviews (always more reliable than the French), I assumed this one would be a guaranteed thumbs up.
The verdict: I found it incomprehensible. I didn’t understand what was happening in the film (made up as it is of several vignettes, all allegories; trailer here). I ceased trying to follow it after some twenty minutes, as I couldn’t make sense of the story (as there didn’t appear to be one). I could have walked out of the theater (sparsely attended, and on opening day) at any moment but stuck it out to the end, though for no good reason, as I was bored to tears for the two long hours. So for the first time in my recent movie-going history, I am obliged to part company with Jay Weissberg. Gomes’s film is one for critics, not audiences. And I am manifestly not alone, as after four weeks in the salles, barely 29,000 have seen it in all of France (cf. ‘Tabu’, which attracted 144K spectateurs during its run; for this latest one, Allociné spectateurs are decidedly less enthusiastic than the critics). In France that is called an échec, i.e. the pic has bombed, and among its natural audience of highbrow cinephiles.
The second “volume” of the triptych opens next week. I think I’ll skip it. And I certainly won’t be the only one.