Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights debuting at Cannes 2015

Arabian Nights, which debuts in The Directors’ Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a sprawling exploration of contemporary Portuguese society and how austerity measures implemented in 2013 caused much suffering.

Director Miguel Gomes, below, has split Arabian Nights into three films. Above, the director in a scene from the third film The Enchanted One. AFP; courtesy Arabian Nights
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Arabian Nights, which debuts in The Directors' Fortnight section of this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a sprawling exploration of contemporary Portuguese society and how austerity measures implemented in 2013 caused much suffering.

It’s a storyline that does not sound like it has anything in common with the collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories that it is named after, which were compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. However, director Miguel Gomes has taken the structure and characters of the book and placed them in a modern setting.

The translation of the Arabic title of the collected stories is One Thousand and One Nights and the book is more than 600 pages long. So perhaps it's no surprise that Gomes split Arabian Nights into three films – The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One – to update and tell the classic tale in a modern-day context. With a running time of 381 minutes, it's easily the longest Cannes entry this year.

When I meet Portuguese director Gomes in Cannes, he starts off by making an odd statement for someone who is adapting the book Arabian Nights for the big screen.

“Like 99 per cent of the world,” he says. “I haven’t read the whole thing.”

But then, this isn’t a straight adaptation of the novel, it’s a work that is inspired by the narrative structure of the book, its characters and the vast range and tone of the tales.

The framework through which the fables are told in the book involves a bride, Scheherazade, who attempts to prevent her husband, the king, from executing her by telling him stories every night. The king believes that if he lets her live, she will be unfaithful, like his first wife, so after the wedding night, he plans to send her to the gallows.

Scheherazade comes up with a brilliant ruse of telling him a story that never ends – so that the king, who wants to hear what happens next, will spare her life. This goes on for 1,001 nights, until the king realises that he couldn’t possibly kill a woman as wonderful as Scheherazade.

Gomes saw Scheherazade as the perfect character to narrate his views on modern Portugal, because he believes that fiction is more powerful than documentary as a means of sharing ideas about present-day society.

“If you watch a film noir with Bogart in the 1940s, despite it clearly being made in a studio, you still have the sensation that things were not going well in American society at that moment,” says the 42-year-old director. “I think that fiction resonates with the mentality of an era and this is why I called on Scheherazade to help me.”

The film begins like a documentary, with Gomes talking to shipyard workers about economic hardship and job losses, but then things get surreal. The director literally runs away from the project, and when the film crew catch him they bury him in sand. The action then drifts back a thousand years and moves to Baghdad, where we enter the world of fantasy.

"My connection with Arabian Nights was the possibility and desire to have a very surreal film," says Gomes. "In the first volume there is a dying mermaid, an exploding whale and a talking cockerel. You have a lot of unbelievable things."

And it is in those aspects that his film about Portuguese austerity contains many elements of the book. For example, lines are lifted verbatim and a shepherd suddenly appears at a meeting between the Greek government, the European Commission and international bankers.

“I thought that my compromise on the book was to be faithful to a certain feeling that comes from it,” says Gomes. “For me this is concentrated on surrealism. The first volume of the film, especially, has the same baroque structure and contains a lot of stories within stories within stories.

“I have picked up things from the book, maybe even some narrative-fiction ideas and some dialogues, but there is not one page of this huge book that is illustrated in the film, so that’s why I don’t think it’s an adaptation.”

Needless to say, the result is wacky, but also quite brilliant.