Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 16, 2015 5:58 pm 
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Gomes rails against austerity in a wildly ambitious compendium of genres

In his previous (2012 NYFF) appearance, his third feature actually, the remembered colonial adultery tale, Tabu, the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes showed himself to be an uneven but original and imaginative filmmaker. With his massive three-feature, six-hour "Arabian Nights" sequence, introduced in Directors Fortnight at Cannes, he reveals even more energy, ambition, and experimentalism. From the first frames of an over-long prelude, he exhibits a sure touch. But as time went on in Volume 1, which blends lengthy footage about Portugal's economic woes brought about by austerity policies with folkloric and documentary elements loosely tied together (rather arbitrarily) through an externally imposed 1001 Nights narrative structure, the combination seemed increasingly uneasy and unconvincing. What have an exploding beached whale, ruminations about massive shipyard layoffs, a fantasy about officials magically given perpetual erections, men narrating their unemployment experiences, a satirical political fairy tale about a cockerel, and documentary footage of a war on wasps to save bee colonies got to do with each other, or with the Arabian Nights? One is impressed, but one has doubts.It's a lot to swallow, and final assessment must await a viewing of all three parts.

We're told Gomes worked for a year (2013-2014) with journalists recording the devastation caused in Portugal by austerity programs; that this is linked together by a local Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate). But despite a bold (and loud) style, this seems, in its first part, more a matter of ambition than actual accomplishment or coherence. Above all it is coherence that is lacking. Gomes announces (in his free use of big inter-titles) that he is not adapting the Arabian Nights, merely using its structure. But this is simply a way of saying that his use of the classic Arabic folktale framework is superficial, and tacked on in an effort to hold together unrelated material whose combination he himself admits at the outset was foolish.

Variety's Jay Weissberg points out that Gomes has hired Apichatpong Werrasethakul's usual dp Sayombhu Mukdeeprom here, but this hasn't the magical glow of a "Joe" film. Gomes achieves an amusing self-reflectiveness at the outset by showing himself running away from his own film crew, depressed at economic and social events in the country and overwhelmed by the absurdity of his own hubris in planning to depict them in a way that blends the folkloric and the epic. But this only illustrates the film's tendency, and ability, to incorporate all elements that arise, including the director's self-doubts. Whether anyone other than Gomes's most devoted fans will want to stick around remains uncertain, but the flashy series, enlivened (however artificially) by the use of fire, fireworks, and the aforementioned exploding beached whale and by an effective, and loud, use of music ranging from Rimsky Korsakoff to Aarvo Pärt, shot in brightly colored widescreen 16mm., is ideally suited for the more dedicated festival goers, especially those opposed to the right's ill-fated Great Recession austerity measures. The Volumes will be reviewed one by one.

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless one/As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto, 125 mins., debuted in Directors Fortnight at Cannes, May 2015. Many other festivals, including the New York Film Festival, in connection with which it was screened for this review. Released 24 June in Paris, it received excellent reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.2). The French critics admired Volume 1's blending of poetry and politics.

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