Word from Cannes last spring was that as the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes unveiled the first part of his genre-defying Arabian Nights trilogy, the cognoscenti divided into two categories: One group could not get enough of these fantastical tales about the suffering citizens of Euro austerity and hurried to see parts two and three; the other group felt it had grasped the bold but rambling mix of social realism and narrative fancy in two hours and hadn't the patience to sit through four more.
After seeing Volume 1, The Restless One at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I placed myself in the second camp and have only recently caught up with the rest of a project that is part genius and part shaggy-dog.
Labelling his film as a response to the impoverishment of ordinary people caused by the government-imposed austerity of 2013-14, Gomes explains his dilemma brilliantly at the start of Volume 1. How is a well-meaning filmmaker to effectively render the pain of the Portuguese with a documentary set in a town where the shipyard has closed just as alien wasps are attacking local beehives?
First Gomes goes comically AWOL; then, hauled back by his crew, he turns to the legendary storyteller Scheherazade and the interlocking storytelling devices of One Thousand and One Nights for inspiration. And so, he begins to string together scenes that mix fantastical fairy tales, loosely linked to the Arabic classic, into longer passages set in contemporary Portugal, where he enlivens languorous stretches of cinema verité with the occasional flourish of surrealism.
Volume 1 introduces a mermaid, a talking rooster and Eurocrats with permanent erections into a film that still finds time to interview the unemployed. Volume 2, The Desolate One includes a patient judge who takes evidence from a talking cow and a gaggle of thieving mummers, as well as a story about a suicide pact in a public housing compound. Volume 3, The Enchanted One is mainly a documentary about an unusual Portuguese subculture dedicated to trapping wild chaffinches and entering them in birdsong contests, although it also contains the startling image of Scheherazade meeting her turbaned father on a giant modern Ferris wheel to discuss how much longer she can keep these stories going.
At the core of Volume 2 is a dark but defining passage set in the judge's outdoor courtroom where she presides over a series of interlocking trials as each hard-luck case blames his or her crime on another's action or inaction: A family has sold their landlord's furniture; the landlord himself is a foul character who places crank calls to 911; the genie who controls him suggests that's a plot to undermine public health care; a deaf woman has stolen some cows; her ex-husband won't pay her child support and the social services can't help her because the 93-year-old bureaucrat who runs them is just trying to protect the pension fund.
In short, Gomes believes we should all take responsibility for one another and sees austerity as a government abrogation of social duty that ultimately turns citizen against citizen. From that follows, rather naturally, a series of stories about the tenants in the public housing block who mainly support one another, even if that's only by helping move furniture on eviction day.
Teasing out these meanings can be a frustrating process, however, and some of the more slow-moving bits of observational documentary will try any audience's patience. The pleasing incongruity of grown men pitting their song birds against one another but a stone's throw from the noisy runways of Lisbon airport had exhausted itself long before the chaffinches had stopped singing. Similarly, not all of Gomes's flights of historical fancy are as compelling as the sight of Scheherazade at the top of that Ferris wheel. Arabian Nights is a remarkable achievement, but also an erratic one.