Arabian Nights film trilogy examines economic surrealism

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

The stories we tell are often a reflection of how we survive as humans and that idea is no more evident than in Arabian Nights, the sprawling six-hour, three-part epic by Portugal's Miguel Gomes.

Jumping off from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, Gomes creates a world that is stark, magical and strange for those trying to make sense of what is happening around them. Potential viewers are forewarned that the whole premise isn't just an artistic exercise but an intellectual one as well.

Each part contains stories that reflect a theme: Volume 1 -- The Restless One, Volume 2 -- The Desolate One and Volume 3 -- The Enchanted One. The arc of the trilogy explores the country's protracted economic crisis and cleverly utilizes the architecture of One Thousand and One Nights to delve into the personal aspects of the country's dragged-out recession.

Watching Volume 2 (which is to be Portugal's Oscar entry for Best Foreign film), I am first struck by the naturalistic desolation of the first story, which has an old killer on the run. The scrub brush landscape reflecting the dismal situation of the killer and the sudden appearance of three nubile young women (real or not) play with the viewer's sense of foreboding. Then, a drone appears -- how unnatural!

Throughout each narrative, Gomes drops things into scenes that are sudden, jarring the viewer and causing one to question what's happening. He is playing with us.

The next scenario is far from naturalistic. Set in an ancient amphitheatre, a judge attempts to deal with a series of crimes that involve a talking cow, a Chinese businessman, a farmer, irate neighbours, a deaf woman whose wallet was stolen and the 13 lovers of the Chinese man.

Photo courtesy of Arabian Nights film

First-time actors

It's interesting to note the inclusion of Mandarin here and the concept of The Golden Visas Program in which wealthy Chinese citizens can purchase property in Portugal. The one Chinese woman speaking on behalf of the 12 other lovers is Jing Jing Guo, who actually works for a Portuguese company that facilities these real estate deals.

In the material provided with the films, the bios of the actors are included and it seems Gomes has mixed professionals with newbies. One of the actors is a window-cleaner while another sells crafts from Senegal and goes back to Africa once a year to visit his wife and children.

Actors for the film have been chosen well -- representing a cross-section of society and physical appearances. At times, there are snippets of scenes that feel like a documentary.

Staged theatrically, The Tears of the Judge story echoes the concept of a Greek tragedy -- one ridiculous tragedy amassed by a series of picayune crimes of individuals against each other.

The judge, eyes growing in disbelief, holds her head in her hands proclaiming the case before her a "grotesque chain of stupidity, evilness and despair."

Real or not?

As Vol. 2 hops from story to story, the director creates a mini-film around each arc, with its own music, tone and feel.

The last story of Vol. 2 features a shaggy little dog and his ability to bring happiness -- and therefore, salvation -- to the melancholy inhabitants of a crumbling set of apartment complexes.

Using the dog as a hope monitor, the film wanders from person to person as their sad circumstances are revealed. It is intriguing to also note that some these inhabitants aren't living any more.

One has to go into these films with some knowledge of the stories of the Arabian Nights to fully appreciate the surreal aspects of the director's creations. And if you consider how long the Portuguese have endured their economic slump, you might understand how nonsensical their existence may seem to themselves in a global economy.

Near the end of Vol. 2, the happy dog is barking at the ghost of another dog -- or perhaps its own impending death? -- ah, the ending that awaits us all.

The Arabian Nights trilogy opens January 8 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for

Photos courtesy of Arabian Nights.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.