Before the title card appears some twenty odd minutes into volume one of Miguel Gomes’six hour version of Arabian Nights, the director has appeared on screen as himself and has abandoned his epic production, with his film crew roaming about in search of him. This first twenty minutes – a mere sixth of the first volume’s runtime and an even more meager eighteenth of the whole ordeal’s – serves to not only introduce the audience to Gomes, but to his daunting creation at hand. Luckily for us, he didn’t really bail on it. And he gave us 2015’s only epic to feature a boner wizard, a rooster voice over, and an exploding whale. And that’s just moments of the first third.
Volume One carries with it the subtitle “The Restless One.” I’m not quite sure that I can answer as to why yet, but it’s there. It should also be noted that following the opening title, another large title card addresses that Gomes film is “Not an adaptation of the book Arabian Nights despite drawing on its structure” which is, ultimately, to say that it isn’t a literal adaptation. It is very clearly inspired by the original tales with Scheherazade even serving as our storyteller here, but the stories themselves are decidedly different and very much influenced by Gomes’ home of Portugal.
This first volume is split up into three main stories: “The Men with Hard-Ons,” “Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” and “The Swim of the Magnificents.” Each have eccentricities and droll humor to spare, as is Gomes’ trademark now thanks to the ever pleasant Tabu. There is likely a lot to say about metaphor here, both in regards to the tales as told by Gomes and those it is inspired by versus the real world social/political climate in Portugal that is referenced throughout, but I’m at no point to do so yet. However, the film’s official website does feature a “reality” section containing quite a few links to articles that allow for further investigation and I can see it being really rewarding to dig through.
Despite how informed by politics and history that this may be, it’s refreshingly fun. Gomes announced his brand of humor with the aforementioned Tabu – and also in his feature that preceded that, Our Beloved Month of August – and it’s in full force here. “The Men with Hard-Ons” is about just that, with plenty of leering shots at men’s clothed junk protruding skyward (and even including one man urinating on his own face as a result) only framed by financial greed. “Story of the Cockerel and the Fire” features our rooster voice over wherein a rooster is on trial for crowing too early in the day and waking up the townfolk, yet the judge is the only one who can understand him. “The Swim of the Magnficents” features the exploding whale – which is like a morbid punchline to last year’s Leviathan – and involves swimming, squids and really loud punk music. It’s all rather unique, calling to mind a more verbose, narratively focused Guy Maddin with a much brighter palette. And the 16mm/35mm cinematography from usual Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is exquisite.
“The Restless One” closes with a scrolling index complete with minute markers in place of pages, calling to its literary aspirations. And this goes all the way up to the 339 minute mark of its closing volume showing how overwhelming a work this truly is for Gomes and making the viewer beg for more. If I had it all available to me right now, I’d be binge watching like the best of ’em. But, this is material that, despite its accessibility and pervading sense of humor, welcomes contemplation. Maybe that’s the solution to the subtitle after all: the restless one is the viewer. I’m ready for the other four hours now.