Arabian Nights: Volume 2, the Desolate OneReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/18/16 00:05:27
Volume 1 of Miguel Gomes's "Arabian Nights" trilogy impressed me, although not quite enough to justify the scale of the thing on its own. This second volume, released a month after the first in their native Portugal but generally playing other territories in much closer succession, plays at just enough of a higher level to give a viewer an even stronger idea of why the whole thing is being sold as an event.Unlike the first, this second entry (The Desolate One) doesn't start with a story that eases the audience into the concept, instead simply stating that these stories are based upon the format of 1001 Arabian Nights but inspired by stories from the recent period of austerity in Portugal as it establishes the environment for "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão 'Without Bowels'", the first of the film's three segments. Simão's colorful nickname springs from his being the type of man who can eat a great deal without gaining much weight. He's on the run, dodging drones and meeting with friends, loved ones, and supporters, although it's not until later on that the audience learns exactly why the police are after him. In the meantime, it's enough to process how Simão (Chico Chapas) makes his way through the backwoods and scrub of Portugal, less driven by the desire to escape to Spain than that to stay free. Chico Chapas is excellent as Simão, having the sort of lean and weathered face that reinforces the narration while also poking a bit of fun at how outlaws get mythologized, communicating the man's weariness and nervous state without often speaking. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom carries a lot of weight as well, highlighting just how alone Simão is, making the forces pursuing him feel like intruders, occasionally framing him against the remnants of previous inhabitation. Gomes plays with audience perception as well, offering up one sequence that is almost certainly fantasy to make the audience both question others and wonder about a broader mindset.
The middle entry, "The Tale of the Judge's Tears", is likely the film's most eccentric and perhaps delightful. It opens with a beautiful young woman (Joana de Verona) losing her virginity and then calling her mother to discuss it. The mother (Luisa Cruz) turns out to be the judge of the title, whose case - heard in an outdoor amphitheater - seems to be open and shut, but the mother and son who sold their landlord's furniture claim extenuating circumstances, the plaintiff has a story of his own, and soon a network of fraud is revealed that seems to involve the entire courtroom. This is where the episode gets delightfully absurd but also perfectly deadpan, as each new fact that the judge learns is more peculiar, down to outright fantastical. Luisa Cruz is terrific as the judge, generally striking a great balance between treating the insanity around her as believable and treating it as ridiculous. Gomes and his co-writers keep her from being entirely rational with an important bit at the beginning which comes full-circle at the end, making a point without resorting to lecturing.
For the final third of the film, "The Owners of Dixie", the scene shifts to an apartment block where a stray dog appears and is quickly adopted. This friendly animal seems perfectly intelligent and cheerful, a boon to the people who need something cheerful in their lives, although one wonders if that can be enough. One of the things Gomes and company do throughout the series is to use titles and sectioning to define groupings - in fact, the credits to each film start with an index showing at which minute certain segments and sub-segments start - and it's worth noting just how much tension is generated just from placing "1. Gloria, Luisa, and Humberto" on the screen as one woman finds the dog she will name Dixie. It implies that there will be others, and that something will therefore happen to the ones we're seeing. It's not necessarily a level of suspense that the story needs, but it focuses things, reminding the audience of the tumult faced by all the characters when it would be very easy to focus on all the cute little doggie coats Dixie is wearing. There's a bit of a last-minute twist, but it's in many ways more odd than essential.
What separates Volume 2 from Volume 1, and in many ways makes it better, is that Gomes's anger and frustration is just as focused but also allows room to be frustrated by the common people he is naturally inclined to think of as victims. This is clearest in "The Judge's Tears", where the intertwining absurdities on the one hand show that when the economy goes bad, the whole ship sinks with desperation spreading throughout society, even as the judge can't help but note that this does not actually excuse crimes. This frustration links with the other two segments; the twist at the end of the first notes that one's frustration with the system does not mean it should be rejected in its entirety, while the third is careful to note that Dixie seems intelligent, and much of her good spirits come from forgetfulness or ignorance. The government at the time may be cruel and, as the opening titles mention, unconcerned with social justice, but bad situations don't just come from bad policy at the top, but selfish and spiteful behavior all around. It is probably no coincidence that this volume is more overtly sexual than the first one in spots; simple self-gratification can lead to one being unconcerned about the community. Gomes is not letting anybody off the hook, but noting that selfishness is universal, and aggregates.One must be careful with that attitude - saying everyone is at fault can border on saying nobody is or that nothing can be done - but that's where the care and precision that has been shown throughout the series comes in. "Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One" is frequently great satire, both for its teeth and for how they are often not fully bared, though its whimsy and absurdity are not simply disguise, but entertaining in their own right. If the series keeps improving, Volume 3 must be something fairly terrific.
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