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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Arabian Nights (Blu-ray)
Arabian Nights (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // May 3, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted April 15, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie(s):

Clocking in at over 6 hours, Portugese director Migues Gomes' Arabian Nights isn't necessarily an epic retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights, a series of ancient stories supposedly told by a queen to an evil king in order to stave off her execution. Gomes merely takes inspiration from this premise in order to tell the personal tale of the many socioeconomic problems his country has faced since the economic collapse in 2008, which hurt Portugal more than most other European countries. Using the framing device of Arabian Nights, Gomes weaves together stories about greed, love, personal responsibility, etc… told from the point of view of the depressed and lost people of contemporary Portugal.

A lot of critics who praise this ambitious and eclectic undertaking point out that Arabian Nights manages to become a universal experience, regardless of its plethora of tight-knit references about specific events that took place during the last decade of Portugese politics and economics. My take on that is a fairly balanced "yes" and "no". The way Gomes uses the universal fairy tale mold of the 1001 Nights structure lends this project a more universally relatable tone of whimsy and creativity, but there are also a lot of instances of delicate and detailed information about Portugese politics that might make non-Portugese audiences scratch their heads. I'm sure there are a lot of scenes I found to be unnecessary or baffling that referenced important events in recent Portugese history.

As unhinged and lively as Gomes is in his creativity and eclectic approach to storytelling, Arabian Nights also comes across as a bit too self-indulgent and deliberately slow-paced at times. This issue presents itself mostly during the first twenty minutes of the first chapter (Or film, depending on how you look at it), which shows a sullen documentary about unemployed ex-shipyard workers intercut with playful scenes where Gomes himself admits to the audience that he has no idea how to put together his story about the financial and social woes of contemporary Portugal. The scenes with the director work as a thesis for not only the existence of Arabian Nights, but also as an explanation as to why it's so fragmented and tonally all over the place.

As a major art-house director who has gained the respect of the international film community, Gomes understands that he has a responsibility to tell the tale of his country, yet this grave task also causes him enough anxiety to lose focus on a specific style to bring to the table. Therefore, instead of giving up on the whole thing, he settles on a kitchen sink approach, mixing drama, comedy, documentary, fantasy, surrealism, etc… into one big six hour film. Yes, Arabian Nights was split into three separate volumes, but it was obviously meant to be watched as a whole, as evidenced by the way Gomes lists all of the stories, as well as their runtimes, during the end credits of each volume.

After the honestly overlong documentary introduction, the anthology's framing device is introduced with a clever mix of actors wearing ancient middle-eastern costumes in front of modern settings. The first volume, dubbed "The Restless One", focuses on greed and miscommunication, as we watch a series of short tales about bankers who can't get rid of their permanent erections, and a trade unionist who tries to organize a swimming event for the unemployed. The most interesting story here concerns a story-within-a-story, where it turns out that a loud rooster, hated by all neighbors, has a touching tale to tell of his own.

The second film, called "The Desolate One", focuses on the desperation of the Portugese people to hang onto any semblance of happiness and normalcy, sometimes at the expense of their fellow citizens. The first story tells the most delightfully absurd tale in Arabian Nights, about an entire town fully aware of the location of a man who killed his family, but still treats him like a local hero since they distrust the authorities more than a murderer. The second story might be my favorite in the entire project, aided immensely by its single location and meager production design, making it look like a Greek tragedy. It shows a judge who questions an entire audience of people about their crimes.

The already surreal trial setting turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare as every single accused refuses to take responsibility for their actions, leading to the questioning of a cow of all things. The third story is long enough to become a mini-feature, and is about a dog moving from one owner to another, bringing each one some happiness in their depressed lives, mostly broken up by Portugal's struggling economy.

The third film, called "The Enchanted One", feels more like a special features disc than a movie that's directly connected to the first two volumes. The first section focuses on the queen who tells the stories, as she tries to find some happiness and stability in suitors that have equal amounts of positive and negative traits. This part is accessible and affable, and contains the most exotic and beautiful shots of Arabian Nights, but it also doesn't add much to Gomes' overall thesis. The final story, a feature-length documentary about a bunch of men trapping birds for a birdsong contest, is the most bizarre and out of place addition. It could have worked better as a separate feature release.

The Blu-ray:

Video:

Arabian Nights was shot in 16mm, and carries with it the somewhat faded and grainy look of the format. This interesting choice works for Gomes, since it gives the film a charming and historical look. The 1080p transfer is mostly devoid of video noise, but contains a fair share of scratches and dirt. This might turn some viewers off, but I thought it added to the overall guerilla experience.

Audio:

We get DTS-HD 5.1 and DTS-HD 2.0 options. There isn't much difference between the surround and stereo options during documentary sequences, but the surround track comes to life during the more whimsical and imaginative parts. This is true especially when it comes to the gorgeous and dynamic score.

Extras:

Disc 1:

A Conversation With Miguel Gomes: This 40-minute conversation, recorded after Arabian Nights' screening at the New York Film Festival, shows Gomes openly discuss his inspirations, confusions, and frustrations with the project. A must-watch for fans of the film.

We also get a Trailer for all three volumes.

Disc 2:

We only get a Trailer, the same one from Disc 1.

Disc 3:

Redemption: This is a half-hour experimental short film from Gomes. I found it to be too disconnected and random, as it only uses stock footage to make its points. Only for the hardcore fans of the director, I guess.

We get the same Trailer a third time.

There's also a nice Criterion-style booklet with diary entries by Gomes.

Final Thoughts:

I'm not as head over heels in love with Arabian Nights as a lot of other critics were. The unhinged inventiveness and sense of humor that's used to communicate the ongoing pain of an entire country is a deft touch, and the sheer ambition is hard not to praise. But it's also a fairly subjective project, which might alienate some viewers not up to date on contemporary Portugese politics.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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