Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 20, 2015 4:16 pm 
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Gomes dives deeper into documentary territory with two hours about chaffinch fanciers

After watching Volume 3, we can sum up what each of the three films is like. Volume 1 is at once self-referential (the director running away from his crew); playful about its frame-tale; and observational-documentary. It's overtly -- and somewhat repetitiously and annoyingly -- self-conscious and doctrinaire in its protest against Portugal's destructive period of economic austerity. Volume 2 does something of an about-face and stops preaching to the viewer. Instead it delves into narrative with a vengeance, imitating the original 1001 Nights tales' far-fetched and intertwined incidents, though still blending fantastic and documentary elements, since it relies largely on non-actors. Volume 3, in effect, narrows the focus further, playing around with the Arabian frame-tale idea eccentrically for a bit in a Mediterranean setting at the outset, but then hunkering down into a single narrow focus: a lengthy, rambling documentary on a Portuguese passion we didn't know about and maybe didn't need to: catching, breeding, and training chaffinches and entering them in competitions where they are judged for the richness and complexity of their vocalizing.

There is a vague tie-in to the trilogy's economic theme in that the chaffinch-enthusiasts seem often to come from the working class housing blocks Gomes referred to in Volume 2 -- blocks he explains here were built where formerly there were shanty towns -- though how poor Portugal has long been as a country isn't gone into. It isn't made clear, but some of these men may get so involved in their hobby because they're unemployed. Be that as it may, what we get is just one observed scene after another in a long ramble quite artificially broken up by announcing that Sheherezade has ended one night's storytelling and begun another.

Perhaps to break the monotony, but not successfully, this Volume is exceptionally replete with yellow on-screen texts constantly adding notes and jottings about history, the birds, and this and that. Some may see these excessive texts as amiable eccentricity; others may call it reckless self-indulgence. Either way it is tedious, and Volume 3 emphatically confirms the impression that Miguel Gomes has put one over on the festival juries with this attention-getting, loud, colorful, eccentric, but ultimately unrewarding set of films.

Arabian Nights won the top prize at the June 2015 Sydney Festival, so Guardian's Australian correspondent Luke Backmaster was obliged to write about it, though he is less than enthusiastic. He begins by describing it by its length: "The first and most predictable adjective that comes to mind when describing Miguel Gomes’ surreal, colorful, funny, poignant and at times befuddling Portuguese comedy-drama Arabian Nights is 'long'." He notes that at "some 338 minutes" it's "a thoroughly butt-crunching affair, one part cinematic endurance test and two parts intellectual exercise, more likely to induce back pain or deep vein thrombosis than any other film you’ll see this year or, probably, ever." He's not far wrong (though there are other endurance tests in the festival world). But I would add one other detail. Not only is this marathon a butt-cruncher, it's also frequently ear-splitting. Gomes has the sound ramped up to blockbuster actioner level or beyond.

Buckmaster appears mistaken in calling the chaffinch segment faux documentary. I don't think the men are playing anybody, just doing their hobby thing. The only question is why this obscure activity should be deemed worthy to take up most of the last third of such an ambitious and flashy trilogy. But the Aussie is right again in his conclusion: Gomes' thingie "is everything a brave cinephile broaching a six-hour hit of Portuguese cinema feared Arabian Nights would be: dull, exhausting and seemingly endless, with symbolic significance only for those willing to make loose and creative connections."

Arabian Nights: Volume 3 - The Enchanted One/As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantad, 125 mins, debuted with Volumes 1 and 2 in Directors Fortnight at Cannes May 2015, thereafter at fifteen other festivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. US premiere. A coming Kino Lorber US release set for 18 December 2015.

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