Dir.: Miguel Gomes; Cast: Christa Alfaiate, Chico Chapas, Americo Silva, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland 2015, 125 min.
In part of three of his trilogy Arabian Nights, titled The Enchanted One, Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes finally moves Scheherazade (Alfaiate) into the centre of this modern retelling of Thousand and One Nights, set in a contemporary Portugal, haunted by economic decline.
Like in part two, three fables are being told, this trio being more interconnected than in The Desolate One. Scheherazade’s own story is told against the background of high-rise blocks in working class Marseille, in the outrageous sumptuous Chateau d’If. Filmed in lush colours by DOP Mukdeeprom, this costume drama is even more a film-in-a-film than the segments of the proceedings films. Scheherazade’s father, the Grand Vizier (Silva) is frightened that his daughter might run out of stories, to save her life. At the same time, he is drawn back to his much-loved wife, now deceased: the images of the two women intermingling in his mind. Whilst this clearly artificial and theatrical episode revisits much of Gomes’ Murnau take in Tabu, it somehow does not fit in the whole canon, lacking in focus.
Leading to the second segment ‘Bagdad Archipelago’, where Scheherazade meets the paddle man (Charloto), who has 200 children, and Elvis, a robber cum street dancer, Gomes suddenly switches to a Godard mode, with multiple texts overloading the attention capacity of the audience, particularly the section that resorts to subtitles. Inserts like: “From the wishes and fears of men, stories are born” seem clever, but do not add much. The majority part of the The Enchanted is taken up by the 80 minutes log final segment “Chorus of the Chaffiniches” (shot by Lisa Persson), starring again Chico Chapas (Simao in Part II), as a birdsong expert and bird trapper. The bird trappers are mostly unemployed men, and when we see a man caught in a net meant for birds, the symbolic character is clear. The story of a Chinese girl, told in voice-over, who came to Portugal at the time of depression, adds a further layer of depression to the ending of the trilogy. Together with an open ending, The Enchanted somehow looses his way, suntratcting instead of adding to the whole trilogy.
The structure of Arabain Nights is obviously the main attraction; the narrative, however inventive at times, would not have carried 381 minutes. Gomes has fused Buñuel’s satire, Brechtian allegories and phantasy elements – not unlike Fernando Birri in his South American poetic realism. The stylistic variations, sometimes disperse , are often overwhelming, but Mukdeeprom’s images give the Arabian Nights its unique look, and a coherence. Whilst the opulence of Arabian Nights is obviously part of its strength, Gomes might have overreached a little. He is strongest in the ethnographic chapters, when he shows serous interest in the lives of real people. His choice of popular music, from Rod Stewart to Lionel Ritchie, underlines this argument: his journey between Italian Neo-realism and South American Poetic Realism is strongest, when he chooses a pictorial approach. AS
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