Tales of Ordinary Madness

AFS screens acclaimed Arabian Nights trilogy

"We're living in a time of surrealism. We may look at surrealists, and say, 'They were the prophets of our time,'" says Lars Nilsen, programmer for the Austin Film Society, speaking on the potential impact of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. Gomes' ambitious Arabian Nights trilogy is set around a particularly influential and damaging period for Portugal, and its mostly injurious government austerity programs. It's a challenging audiovisual affair, centered on Gomes' charged resentment and (perhaps earned) self-righteousness – equally pointed, melancholic, and absurdly comedic.

"The films aren't funny from wall to wall, but I think each film has a part that is very funny and very satirical – much in the way of (Spanish filmmaker and satirist) Luis Buñuel. Gomes is very angry with what's happened with the austerity programs – it's right there in each film," explains Nilsen. The director takes on One Thousand and One Nights' structure and framing, and even introduces a punk Scheherazade – played by Crista Alfaiate – as principal in his triptych. It could be easily argued Gomes himself plays the storyteller, creating another layer on top.

The first installment – The Restless One – sets up the story, starting with fused docu-fictions on the closing of a shipyard and a rather catastrophic wasp problem. In the midst, a downtrodden Gomes (on camera and hooded) attempts to leave his own project in conspicuous fashion, which could be seen as both hilariously confounding and concerning – which is clearly Gomes' intent. He starts you with a message about the conflict between straightforward storytelling and politics – then proceeds to satirically work the fuzzy and layered lines between both.

The Desolate One, the second film, reaches into the causal relationship of Portugal's crisis moment. Gomes hits themes of corruption – both on a larger scale and its broad, day-to-day banality – for which all of us are guilty, and subconsciously feed its machinations. The featured scene is the theatrical (and overtly political) "Tears of the Judge," the second tale of the film, in which a judge attempts to rule on an increasingly bizarre case, that ends up so god-awfully convoluted and all-implicating, she's reduced to tears.

The third film, The Enchanted One, relies on a fantastical and absurd merging of distant fantasy and present day, with Scheherazade leading and narrating future tales. Man's need to force coercion and assimilation – found here with her tale of goldfinch keepers and their desire to breed more of what nature had already created – runs front and center.

Ultimately, each film covers the exasperation and realities of the economic crisis, in incredibly human terms. Nilsen recalls an interesting historical comparison. "When we look at Picasso's Guernica, we look at his painting about the bombing [of a town in Basque Country]. In a way, that's a painting about a particular day, in which Nazi Germany and Italian aerial legions came in and bombed Guernica. Now, we look at it, and [it's about] inhumanity, our inhumanity to other people, and how we've gone crazy with our willingness to kill each other, from above or afar.

"People may not remember the Spanish Civil War. But people remember that we have that in our souls. Picasso painted a picture of our souls. I think Gomes has done that. Seventy years from now, who the hell is going to know about the austerity program? But, through literally the lens of this artist, we'll look and see there were times when we lost our minds, in terms of our government and economics."

The trilogy could be seen as a coping mechanism for Gomes, who clearly loves his home. As a think piece, Arabian Nights places an interesting perspective on dealing with societal and economic pressures, and their natural collisions. After all, we are all just trying to understand – even if it's a bit hazardous.

Says Nilsen: "How can we digest all of the madness around us, and not go a little mad ourselves?"

The Arabian Nights trilogy

Presented by the Austin Film Society at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre

The Restless One, Friday, April 8, 8pm

The Desolate One, Sunday, April 10, 2pm

The Enchanted One, Wednesday, April 13, 7:30pm

For tickets and more info, see www.austinfilm.org.

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Arabian Nights, Arabian Nights: The Restless One, Arabian Nights: The Desolate One, Arabian Nights: The Enchanted One, Miguel Gomes, Austin Film Society, AFS, Lars Nilsen

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