Diff review: Surviving Miguel Gomes’s epic six-hour Arabian Nights trilogy

For Rob Garratt, the chance to watch Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s three-part, 381-minute Arabian Nights opus back-to-back at the Dubai International Film Festival was a challenge. A test of endurance, engagement – and simply staying awake.

A scene from Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes. Courtesy BOX Productions
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Arabian Nights

Director: Miguel Gomes

Stars: Crista Alfaiate, Dinarte Branco, Carloto Cotta

Depending on your cinema inclinations, the idea of sitting through a six-hour European art-house film will either sound like a ferociously self-indulgent cerebral treat or – perhaps more likely – some bitter, new form of psychological torture.

For me, the chance to watch Portuguese director Miguel Gomes's three-part, 381-minute Arabian Nights opus back-to-back at the Dubai International Film Festival was a challenge. A test of endurance, engagement – and simply staying awake.

The trilogy had its world première at Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight in May and has been doing the rounds of festivals around the world – winning Sydney’s top prize on the way.

It is an ambitious, fantastical and robust response to the financial crisis that has rocked Europe – a hybrid collage of forms that is at times beautiful, betwixing and beguiling, at others infuriating, iconoclastic and inconsequential.

The trilogy is not – we are told by a caption at the start of each of the three parts – an adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. Rather, it tells new stories inspired by the dramatic austerity measures introduced in Gomes's homeland between September 2013 and July 2014, which left "almost all Portuguese" worse off.

Gomes, the auteur behind 2012's award-winning Tabu, adopts the Arabian Nights structure – using the framing device of Scheherazade, a Queen who must keep King Shahryar entertained with new stories every night until dawn to avoid his sword – to present a series of distinct pieces.

These stand-alone chapters allow Gomes to dance playfully from documentary and social-realist forms to fantasy, farce and historical epic. Stories develop within stories, with up to four layers of fiction at play –like an art-house Inception.

First, however, we meet the director himself. Volume 1, The Restless One, opens with the film crew chasing Gomes as he runs away from his own set in a state of crisis. With a voice-over accompanied by footage of laid-off ship-workers, Gomes explains how he set out to make a whimsical, entertaining film, but such an undertaking seemed impossible as he watched the financial crisis take a grip of his country.

As if in answer, we next meet Scheherazade – the first story-within-a-story – and become reacquainted with the Persian beauty who retreats each day to an island where all of the town’s unmarried women are hiding, returning at nightfall with new tales to entertain the king.

And then her tales began – more than a dozen chapters ranging from just a few minutes to more than an hour in length. Exploding whales, Brazilian nudists, wasp-exterminators, a storytelling cockerel, wish-granting genies, gun-toting vigilantes, Lionel Richie, lie-detectors doing community service and meta-confessions are intertwined in a majestic tapestry that can always be traced – loosely, obliquely, humorously, directly – back to the financial crisis.

Compelling even when it fails to hit the mark, I needn't have been worried about staying awake. Gomes shines when he's at his most silly. The Tears of the Judge, a spoof-Greek courtroom comedy at the centre of Volume 2, The Desolate One, unravels hilariously, as half of the town slowly becomes implicated in an ever-growing trail of poverty-fuelled petty crime.

But the tale hits harder when presented after sobering quasi-documentary footage of one man’s attempts to stage a New Year’s Day public dip, despite business sponsorship evaporating. Along the way the swimmer hears hard-luck stories from fellow volunteers – mini-chapters within his chapter, which is already a story within a story, within a story – before the volume ends gloriously with hundreds of shivering bodies running into the frigid ocean.

Gomes's foot comes off the gas in Volume 3, The Enchanted. After an amusing return to Scheherazade – who, like her director, flees, breaking from the prison of her palace to roam the land, encountering wind genies and the seductive Paddleman – much of the runtime (and more than a fortnight of the Queen's nights) is devoted to a documentary about the highly competitive, covert world of bird-trapping.

A fascinating subject, no doubt, but perhaps such a lengthy exploration could have formed a stand-alone work. The recurring in-joke as Scheherazade devotes night after night to resuming this tale – and the red herring as another tiny chapter begins, only to return to the birds – suggests Gomes secretly knew this, too.

Brave, brilliant and bonkers, Gomes hasn’t quite produced a masterpiece, but a masterwork of concept and technique for sure – and also one of the most direct responses to Europe’s economic plight committed to film.

Was it worth six hours of my life? Absolutely. Would I watch in again? Volume 2, perhaps (which is, incidentally, Portugal's submission for next year's Academy Awards).

More than anything, I’m just glad I stayed awake – and soaked up every last cinematic drop of this perplexing, pessimistic and ponderous piece.