The Restless Storyteller: Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights Begin Unfolding

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Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One
Directed by Miguel Gomes
Opens December 4 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

The most experimental film whatzit to be theatrically released in quite some time—and over three weeks, no less—the Arabian Nights trilogy by Miguel Gomes is not a perfect piece of art and, as much as anything, underlines the fallacy of that very idea. Like some formal pan across a turbulent Portugal, its episodes segue from intricately designed fictions to documentary expanses to whirlpools of oddity and whimsy, a restless work of cultural reframing and repositioning that risks one giant bellyflop.

The Restless One, the first installment, opens with a seaborne shot of the Viana do Castelo shipyard, the cranes and high docks and milling workers momentarily banishing the fantasy of the film’s title, only to return to romance with the unabashed love and pride expressed for the place by grown men in voiceover. The entire endeavor might feel tricksy if it weren’t for this heart, reaffirmed at the end of part one by a depressed worker demanding that his sadness and anger not be treated as medicable symptoms.

With its medley of stories and styles, The Restless One introduces a notion of many truths and experiences over monolithic economic ruin, folktales and legends over statistics and headlines (though its tales draw on research by journalists fanning out across the country). Why shouldn’t the recession be treated as a singular catastrophe rather than part of a boom-bust cycle, an inspiration for art in a comprehensively monetized and quantified world? Arabian Nights is in a way an assertion of the right to tell stories—from the laughing semi-contemptuous satire of international bankers, afflicted with boners, to urban legend of a dispute over a very vocal rooster, to a digression about a Chinese emperor, to Gomes’s own goof about simply running away from his own job as director. “Abstraction gives me vertigo,” Gomes claims in a deceptively modest voiceover early on, before starting and restarting and interrupting his work with Godardian abandon. Rarely does a movie open with such a sense of anything-could-happen possibility, as The Restless One lays out a palimpsest of reality, imagination, and human identity.

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