Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One
"For all Gomes' cleverness, it has to be said that most people who fall in love with this film are going to do so because of Lucky the dog."

The same disclaimer appears at the star of this film as in Arabian Nights: Volume 1 - The Restless One - it's not an adaptation of Scheherazade's famous tales, simply a work using the same structure. It's not a documentary either, though it feels like one in places, between the narration and Gomes' realist, observational style. The central part of a trilogy is often the most difficult, with audiences too easily assuming it only exists to carry them from here to there; as with the book he's not adapting, Gomes makes structural changes at this point to keep things interesting, so we have tales within tales, nestled together like a matryoshka doll - actually a very effective structure through which to explain the interconnectedness of diverse individuals' fates in a crumbling economy.

The most complex of these sections involves a court hearing - outdoors in a ruined ampitheatre, piling on the symbology - in which a judge who would rather be taking care of her maternal responsibilities - instructing the daughter who has just lot her virginity on how to make the perfect marble cake for her lover before he wakes up - must instead attempt to untangle a web of petty (but sometimes devastating) crimes, in which each defendant blames their actions on the necessity occasioned by another. In true Empire Strikes Back style, this is also the darkest part of the trilogy - the almost incidental way in which we are presented with a mute mother whose family is to lose its welfare payments as well as an absent father's contribution highlights both the lethal effects the recession had on some of the country's most vulnerable people and the way in which this was frequently rendered invisible. The woman is a passing thought. Those able to take their fate into their own hands - thieves, murderers, even runaway animals - get tales of their own.

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For all Gomes' cleverness, it has to be said that most people who fall in love with this film are going to do so because of one of those animals. Lucky won the Palme Dog at at Cannes 2015 for his performance as Dixie, the little wanderer (who may remind some viewers of Benji) who briefly brings joy into the lives of the depressed residents of a housing estate in a depressed urban area. As Dixie scampers around carrying newspapers and gazing longingly into a succession of new owners' eyes, Gomes neatly elucidates the impact of ongoing joblessness, hopelessness, and being kept alive through the provision of the same food day after day.

It's a far cry from the film' opening segment, the tale of a man frequently described as a bastard who lives out in the wilds, an outlaw tale verging on pastoral romance. The implication is that a desolate society admires those who fight back even if it doesn't like them. The wild landscape provides some comfort, setting a beautiful stage for slaughter.

Almost entirely absent from this film are the elite envisioned in the first part of the trilogy, and their absence raises questions of its own. Where have they gone? Are they quite separate from this privation? Gomes offers us no clues - he has positioned himself as an observer, not a philosopher, for all that his observations are carefully selected. To discover their fate you will need to wait for part three, and that's another story.

Reviewed on: 29 Apr 2016
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Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One packshot
The middle part of a trilogy exploring Portugal's financial crisis in the style of the original Arabian Nights.
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Director: Miguel Gomes

Writer: Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes

Starring: Crista Alfaiate, Gracinda Nave, Chico Chapas, Gonçalo Waddington, Luísa Cruz, Lucky

Year: 2015

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland


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