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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 rabble.ca.

Photos courtesy of Arabian Nights.

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JUNE CHUA B and W picture

June Chua

June Chua is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker who has worked as a writer, reporter and producer with the CBC in radio, television and online. Her documentary, using 2D animation,...

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