16 September 2015 | JonnyBel
A quirky, surreal and profound crossing within the Portuguese culture
"As Mil e Uma Noites" is the latest film by the Portuguese Miguel Gomes, a director who already caught my special attention with his "Tabu", which also received very positive appreciation, in Portugal and internationally. His new work, a trilogy amassing 381 minutes divided in 3 Volumes, debuted at Cannes, at the Director's Fortnight, having been considered for Palm d'Or but it's sheer duration would be problematic for the festival's agenda. Meanwhile, it has already won some prizes, such as at the Sidney FF, among other nominations. Miguel Gomes called upon the Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, notorious for having regularly worked with "Joe" in pictures like Uncle Boomnee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palm d'Or in 2010, which becomes glaring in some framing layouts, color tones and especially in a scene where a woman fades with a film technique identical to the one used in "Boonmee".
I will write about the first Volume, "The Restless", which is now screening in some (too few) Portuguese cinema theaters.
The movie starts in a documentary style, with the narrated account of the workers at the shipyards of Viana do Castelo about their imminent mass dismissal, speaking interchangeably and in parallel with another narrated report, from the same Portuguese region, but without any causal relationship, of a bee-keeper and handyman who fights against a plague of foreign wasps. This apparent lack of correlation between these two events provokes a creative crisis of the film Director, who is keen on peculiarly showing himself running away from his own film crew, because he fears he may be lacking the ability to carry on his quest of portraying on the big screen the various episodes during the Portuguese financial crisis. The film thus becomes self-aware, channeling a Charlie Kaufman screenplay (Adaptation.). In order to satisfy his film crew, Miguel Gomes then proceeds, in a bizarre context, to explain his intention of telling a series of stories, loosely on the lines of the Arabian Scheherazade homonymous frame tale.
The next segment is probably the most silly, where what might seem to be a serious meeting with the Portuguese government and the "troika" representatives (who Miguel Gomes clearly critiques, presenting both parties with a clear "lack of social justice notion"), quickly becomes an anedoctic and highly surrealistic and delirious episode that satirizes the twists and turns of their decisions, relaying to the lack of "vigour" (sexual innuendo) of the stakeholders, as well as their communication issues inherent to the internationality of the meeting. It is, accordingly, the most Buñuel of the segments of the movie, which the author titled "The Men with Hard-Ons".
The following segment, "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire", is my personal favourite of the volume, which tells a true story in the town of Resende about a rooster that is trialled for disturbing the neighbours with its loudness. Meanwhile, municipal elections are ongoing -- which are subject of quaint provincial conversations, as well as town festivities, and frequent arsons in the mountain range. This set of phenomena might seem unfocused, recalling the initial troubles of the Director's ability to correlate between such events, which solely seem to share a common site, but behold as we re-enter the surrealist context and Miguel Gomes introduces in the narrative an ephemeral Asian character who spits a charade about the "flames" of the village, and, more extravagantly, grants the "singing" rooster the ability to speak in his defence to the judge before being condemned to go to the cooking pot and explaining the missing correlation (and even causality) between the arsons, an innocent story of teenage crush which were in the origin of the crimes, and his own loud nocturnal manifestations, that were no more than an attempt to warn the town of the fires that were to happen. This is the most folkloric segment, where Gomes channels some idiosyncrasies of Kusturica, particularly on a typically Portuguese character who accompanies the judge while joyfully playing his accordion.
In the last segment of this Volume, takes place in Aveiro (the city where I'm finishing University), and captures some pretty imagery of the region's "Barra" lighthouse -- the second tallest of the Iberic Peninsula. Here, we follow the difficulties of the fugleman of "The Bath of the Magnificents", who suffers from heart disease, and hears the testimonies of three "Magnificents" of the region, who tell their stories of crossing severe financial difficulties. The "Bath" at the beach of "Barra" takes place in the first of January and seems to be a way of starting a new year with the superstition of better times ahead
In-between, the punctual doses of satirical surrealism are not missing, with a quirky "medical appointment" and an "exploding" dead whale, which got stuck in the sand of the aforementioned beach -- significances to be deciphered by the viewers.
I will be anxiously waiting for the second Volume, "The Desolated", for another two hours of a cinematic experience with an identity so inextricably Portuguese that I will certainly not lose.