Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One
Directed by Miguel Gomes
In which Scheherazade doubts that she will still be able to tell stories to please the King, given that what she has to tell weighs three thousand tonnes. She therefore escapes from the palace and travels the Kingdom in search of pleasure and enchantment. Her father, the Grand-Vizier, arranges to meet her at the Ferris wheel, and Scheherazade resumes her narration: “Auspicious King, in old shanty towns of Lisbon there was a community of bewitched men who, in all rigour and passion, dedicated themselves to teaching birds to sing…”. And seeing the morning break, Scheherazade fell silent.
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★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
I swear to whichever deity you choose that I'm not trolling here, but this is my favourite one of the series. Why? I mean, common consensus is that this is where Miguel Gomes's trilogy on Portugal in an age of austerity collapses in a heap of chaffinches. But there are several reasons why The Enchanted One was a better capper for the trilogy than I was hoping for.
Firstly, chaffinches are brilliant. I can understand how even the most ardent fan of the chaffinch might think The Enchanted One delivers a bit of a surfeit of chaffinches, but for me it never got old. Part of this is because it's always fascinating to hear people talk about their passions; the moment where Gomes uses on-screen text to isolate the different parts of a chaffinch's call gave me the authentic tingle of learning the answer to a question I didn't know existed. Overall, this is the most straightforwardly sensual instalment of the Nights, whether it's the opening scenes which briefly threaten an actual adaptation of the source text, the ecstatic song-and-dance numbers that suggest a much-improved version of Gomes's previous Our Beloved Month of August, or the ecstatic long take of a man walking through beautiful Portuguese countryside to the tune of the Langley Schools Music Project's version of 'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft'.
Part of what seems to have freed Gomes up to create these beautiful images is the copious onscreen text, which again has been a sticking point with many. For me, it meant the trilogy finally delivered what I'd been hoping for since The Restless One: a narrative that works on multiple levels. When Scheherezade is introduced in this instalment she appears as something like the medieval woman of the source text; as her written testimony goes on she begins talking about Charles Darwin, World War I, and the 1990s. This kind of rupturing of a fictional universe is always a giddy thrill for me; what makes it work is the sense that, as Gomes's trilogy comes to an end, all of its strands are breaking with chronology and reality to dance with each other.
The apparently faithful opening segment includes a reference to Portuguese refugees winding up in Baghdad, the irony of which is impossible to miss. Later, another story is told over documentary images of anti-austerity protests. And then there are chaffinches. But in a week where I've been both exploring the radical cinema of Joshua Oppenheimer (of which, more tomorrow) and had my nose rubbed in how self-destructive British politics can get without an active check on the right, even the chaffinches felt like part of a political point. In an age where the working classes are being asked to accept no future other than steady decline, this kind of plush, pastoral, sumptuous yet thoroughly democratic cinema is a subversive act. Why shouldn't radical films be about beauty, and excess, and indulgence? Why should that terrain be left to conformist, bourgeois cinema?
So yes. If you don't like the chaffinches you're an enemy of the people. Come at me.
★★★★½ review by Josiah Morgan on Letterboxd
To begin a review of the final volume in Miguel Gomes already-infamous trilogy I suppose I may as well begin by speaking about what everyone wants to know: the widely-hated chaffinch sequence - and indeed it is not the turn-off point that everyone has built it up to be, in fact it's the most consistently engaging sequence of events in a film made up entirely of sequences of events; rivaled perhaps only by the whale story that closes Volume One.
What Gomes achieves most successfully is not in the osmosis of his film into wider culture, but in the osmosis of wider culture (that of Portugal, at least) into his film: I know nothing about Portuguese history and I still know nothing, but the Arabian Nights trilogy creates such a rapport that I managed to comprehend why everything was placed how it was even if I did not exactly interpret the political context. Whilst this made moments over the six hours almost-impenetrable (i.e. the crow segment in the first volume), it made others delightfully playful to uncover.
Even thus, despite being grounded in a typical realism, if this is a journey to be categorized then surely it must be viewed as a fairy-tale above all else, defined best by the defining playfulness instilled in the final volume and a journey which reaches an entirely illogical yet inevitable end.
There is not so much any way of intrepreting what Gomes wants to get across here because he's entirely clear: this is an assault on an impossible situation, and an assault on how cinema treats this. He understands that making art about a situation is not going to change a situation, which is the entire reason he chooses to make art about it. These films are an ambitious prank and one that results in many audience members being turned off right as it reaches the very end. That's exactly the reason I gradually grew to love it, and despite many bumpy inconsistencies along the way (the second volume which everyone speaks about does indeed have some of the best moments of a gigantic runtime but everything that surrounds these moments is too obscure to allow everything to fully hit), Gomes ultimately made the film he wanted to make.
It's just a shame not many people think the same way Gomes does, but in other ways, this helps the film along - the obscurity and undefined emotion is exactly what will turn most people off; and launching into an entirely emotionless sequence will leave them signing off permanently. These are precisely the parts which brought me in.
★★★★★ review by Auteur on Letterboxd
A six-and-a-half-hour opus divided into three parts by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights singlehandedly, and quite exhaustively, redefines the political film. Inspired by the severe austerity measures that crippled his country a few years ago, Gomes beautifully blends fact and fiction into a searing magical realist document of governmental negligence and more importantly, the strength and resilience of the people affected. Borrowing the structure of the centuries-old One Thousand And One Nights, Arabian Nights is able to effortlessly move from story to story, reality to fantasy, incorporating both narrative and non-narrative styles, that becomes nothing less than miraculous. Criminally underseen and underappreciated.
Volume 3: The Enchanted One is admittedly the most challenging chapter in Gomes' trilogy. After the pleasant diversion of returning to Scheherazade for an all too brief escape to a beautiful archipelago, fearing soon that the King will grow weary of her stories and end her life, Gomes spends the last hour detailing the lives of finch trainers to such exhaustive extent it might test one's patience, if not for the subtle implications that the whole thing is a metaphor for the tragic permanence of the government's war on culture, erasing large chunks of potential experiences as akin to the silencing of a bird's song. But never once throughout all six hours of Arabian Nights does Gomes ever shortchange the resilience of his fellow citizens. None shall be defeated, and through unity they shall overcome all. Each one unique in his/her own way. And likewise, Arabian Nights is certainly unlike any film I've ever seen.
★★★★½ review by Connor Denney on Letterboxd
By far the weirdest of the Arabian Nights trilogy, The Enchanted One often feels as if its score, on-screen text, and image are working on three different planes. Short from working against each other, these three channels collaborate to make a chaotic and perhaps technically revolutionary work that seems to have less of the overt metaphor or political message of the first two volumes. Instead, the content's relationship with the state of modern Portugal is a bit tougher to grapple with, though there are surely things to be said about the silly songbird competition and its centralization of much of Portugal's time and money on something pointless and useless. The photography is beautiful, once again, and this entry into the trilogy stands well on its own but wraps up the series nicely, seeming to be a bit more forward-thinking than the other two.
★★★½ review by slyman on Letterboxd
"I do not think the fate of men should be subject to a madman."
As for Volumes 1 and 2, I am not able to coherently formulate criticism beyond stating that this was the weakest of the three and I have learnt more about Chaffinches than I could ever wish to . So will just write up some of the highlights from the notes and quotes I took. Vague spoilers may follow:
Great music at the start of this. Story of a rogue Scheherazade. Amazing split screen scenes. Paraglider and boats in background of shots. Deliberately places story in the present. Thief called elvis, what a legend. Most playful of the volumes to date.
The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches
Bird trappers are an odd bunch. Oh hello Dixie. I know more about chaffinches that I'd ever hoped for. Housing blocks?
Security forces probably alluded to earlier. Chinese girl caught up with it all. Became lovers with Cata. Who got her pregnant. Struggled to get an abortion. Deported. Narration of Chinese girls struggles juxtaposed against image of security forces protests.
Back to Chaffinches
They should make this an Olympic sport. Ok that is starting to feel like Cemetery of Splendour "I was flying high but then I descended and got caught in this net."
Two word review: Chaffinch overload
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