Every Miguel Gomes production gets an official drink. Portugal’s leading young director likes end-of-day boozing to match the film’s subject matter – so beer was the tipple of choice on his gregarious 2008 ode to village life Our Beloved Month of August. For 2012’s colonial fantasy Tabu, it was gin and tonic.
But for his latest work, Arabian Nights, a restless but magnificent six-hour trilogy casting a Scheherazade-style brocade of different tales over modern, austerity-hit Portugal, Gomes thinks he messed up. “We chose Madeira wine,” he says, “It’s very special, but it was a mistake.”
“This film can’t have one drink for the whole thing – every segment is quite different from all the others. Maybe a cocktail that reinvents itself every day.”
It’s just as well he didn’t go down that route, as an unmistakeable hangover already hangs over the first few of Arabian Nights’ 381 minutes.
Confronted with the task of making a state-of-the-nation film about demoralised Portugal, a panicked director – played by Gomes – does a runner from his own set. But such droll humour is what, in reality, sees Gomes through a monumental project otherwise driven by indignation.
Not to mention the penetrating and playful attitude towards form he already displayed in Tabu, one of the decade’s greatest films.
With Arabian Nights, that meant tackling the nitty-gritty of his country’s social situation with a fabulist’s spring: “To just show the situation of the people these days – that they’re jobless etc – isn’t enough,” he says.
“It’s not so different from what the media do. We needed to go further and advance into the territory of fiction. I wanted to come up with wild tales like Scheherazade’s, but ones rooted in this common background that the Portuguese shared at this precise moment in their history,” he added.
Hence the early tale The Men With Hard-Ons, where we find Troika members haggling with Portuguese politicians over public spending.
An African wizard sells the conclave a miracle aphrodisiac spray whose Viagra-like effects cause everyone to temporarily neglect economic policy.
It’s part old-school satire from the street, part lo-fi Pythonesque anachronisms (besuited technocrats arriving by camel), and 100 percent the sly bookending of modern and traditional forms that Gomes is fast making his trademark.
The 43-year-old director, a former “very severe” film critic, gave his research team the job of with digging up true-life stories that encapsulated Portugal’s plight after the 2008 economic crisis.
A cockerel put on trial for crowing too early; the suicidal dog owners whose pet is oblivious to the problems of his various new owners; a parade of surreal interconnected crimes in Volume 2’s standout segment, The Tears of the Judge – all were torn from news pages. Most probably.
The trilogy’s wayward mishmash of sources was initially displayed for the Arabian Nights production crew on a board with three columns: on the left-hand side the real stories, imaginary ones on the right, and the middle column – representing the final film – a chimera of the two.
‘The films are the result of a very organic process’
But Gomes abandoned the schema only two weeks into filming because it was too confusing.
All the better to let his project – true to the sprawling mind-maze of the original Arabian Nights – lead him where it would.
“The films are the result of a very organic process,” he explains, “I tried to follow that method, which meant there would be a lot of connections I can’t predict. They’re the result of the people we met, decisions we made that led us to take other decisions.”
One such piece of happenstance: Chico Chapas, a wiry bird trapper Gomes encountered gathering material for the documentary-style chunk that occupies much of Volume 3, ended up playing the fictionalised killer Simao at the start of Volume 2, a mass-murdering outlaw strangely beloved of the locals.
“No actor I knew could walk through the countryside in such a convincing and magical way,” says the director.
‘Is Hollywood now the tyrant?’
The freewheeling modus operandi rules over the finished trilogy, with its patchwork of fact and fiction, oral yarn-spinning and documentary frankness – and all its stitching on show.
It’s an on-the-fly attempt to create a kind of modern Portuguese folk-memory to stand next to the centuries of Middle Eastern storytelling that trickled down into the Arabian Nights.
Like the chaffinch breeders trying to preserve beautiful song strains in the superb section featuring Chapas, a kind of deep communal resilience is what Gomes seems to want to remind his country it still possesses.
But he also had a more practical purpose for the trilogy: “The film’s dedicated to my daughter, who was six when we finished shooting. She was a child, she didn’t have a memory of any of these events.
“For me, it’s important for her, and for other people, to have – if the film is still available and stands the test of time – all these stories from a precise moment inside this sort of ark.”
So it is telling that it is to a father and daughter that the trilogy gives its most self-illuminating moment.
The grand vizier takes a despairing Scheherazade up on a ferris wheel and tells her that every epoch has a tyrannical king – and also a storyteller who must sustain the people.
Gomes is evidently doing his bit, from the arthouse end, for Europe’s downtrodden.
Then there’s that other great trove of tales: Hollywood. Is it still serving the people’s psychological welfare? Or perhaps it is now the tyrant? “It used to do a hell of a job in the 40s and 50s, when it invented all the genres of cinema.
“Even if [the films] looked very artificial compared to our daily lives, they were talking about our societies,” says Gomes. “But now, I don’t know. It has more to do with these guys from big companies and their ideas about what people want to see. Maybe they got too distant from the people.”