Dir. Miguel Gomes. Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland 2014. Volume One: The Restless One. 125 mins. Volume Two: The Desolate One. 131 mins. Volume Three: The Enchanted One. 125 mins

Arabian Nights

Whatever Miguel Gomes’s barely classifiable, encyclopaedic experimental trilogy is, it’s definitely not - as each section’s opening titles inform us - an adaptation of the Arabic suite of stories A Thousand and One Nights. Instead, it’s a hybrid piece that invents its own sui generis form, or rather forms, to discuss the current political realities of Portugal in an ever-shifting and often inspired docu-fictional format. The film is hugely entertaining and quite magical in places; in others, it can be a little gruelling. But then, you could say the same about novels such as Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy - possibly the closest equivalents to the film’s mix of narrative, philosophising and discursive game-playing. While it may well be practically undistributable in traditional theatrical terms (three instalments cover 381 mins), it should be hotly in demand on VOD and at festivals, where it is guaranteed a niche as highbrow art event of 2015.

Whether it’s an essay film, a game with movie form, or - as some will certainly see it - a wildly self-indulgent experiment,  this is a film of huge ambition, intense political commitment and a love of humanity, and of storytelling

The first of three two-hour ‘volumes’ begins with director Gomes himself fretting on the impossibility of embarking on his latest intended venture, a suite of narratives, when Portugal is in such a wretched state - the government’s recent austerity measures having brought a vast swathe of the population to economic and personal catastrophe. Superimposing scenes of a shipyard closure and attempts to control a plague of wasps, Gomes introduces what ends up becoming an attempt to recount Portugal’s crisis through a narrative structure based on that of the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherezade (played by Crista Alfaiate) enchants her husband the king with a series of tales.

Over three volumes - very much of a piece, but each perfectly viewable in isolation - Gomes mixes episodes from, or rather inspired by, the Nights (complete with genies, camels, princesses and much cod-oriental dress-up finery) with documentary or semi-documentary glimpses of working-class life around Portugal. And just as often, he blurs the two registers, often to disconcerting and extremely humorous effect.

The episodes are sometimes very short and fragmentary, sometimes extremely extended (some of them showing that Gomes doesn’t always know when to call it a night). Some are narrated in voice-over by Scheherezade, others told simply by the often nonsequitur-like on-screen titles that appear in bright yellow throughout.

To give just a cross-section, the episodes include (in Volume 1) the satirical story of the Men With Hard-Ons (Portuguese politicians and economists are placed under a priapic spell) and the Swim of the Magnificents (members of a working-class bathing club talk about their experience of hard times). In Vol. 2 we witness the adventures, shot like a John Ford Western, of an outlaw named Simão Without Bowels, a surreal and very Brechtian courtroom episode done magically as a piece of nocturnal open-air theatre, and an extended and extremely poignant story of a small dog named Dixie among the residents of a housing estate. Finally, in Vol. 3, the adventures of Scheherezade herself, her assorted admirers and other Arabian Nights characters (such as the apocryphal likes of beach boy ‘Paddleman’) play out alongside what amounts to a self-contained documentary in its own right, a long investigation of the Portuguese subculture of chaffinch hunters, who catch birds and enter them in extended song contests. Embedded in the latter section is a separate parenthesis in which a Chinese student, whose name translates as ‘Hot Forest’, tells her own story in voice-over over footage of assorted recent public demonstrations in Portugal.

The film not only invents its own form, but a radically new method, with Gomes sending out a team of journalists around Portugal to gather real-life stories that feed into the film. He also uses a mixture of professional actors in multiple roles (some well known in Portugal, like Rogerio Samora) and non-professionals. Among the latter, some get to play characters, others represent themselves in documentary sections, while others cross the line - notably a wizened white-haired ex-fisherman turned bird catcher named Chico Chapas, who acquires a mythical Everyman status in various sections (and even gets a ribald sex scene).

Gomes is using a technique he previously explored in his Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in which real people in an ostensible documentary suddenly played themselves as fictional characters; here, that blurring is arguably more thoroughgoing.

The film is shot in Scope on 16mm and 35 mm by Apichatpong Weerasethakul regular Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (with two separate sections shot by others), sometimes naturalistically, sometimes in vividly enhanced hues - making the fantasy sequences entrancingly vivid.

One of the treats across the three volumes is a constantly surprising soundtrack - which takes in multiple versions of the Latin evergreen Perfidia, some wild Brazilian 60s samba-rock, and even the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, to accompany, of all things, a tortoise race.

Gomes’s massive undertaking has less in common with conventional art cinema than with certain types of moving-image gallery art or with wildly expansive strains of experimental novel, by writers such as Georges Perec to David Foster Wallace. Whether it’s an essay film, a game with movie form, or - as some will certainly see it - a wildly self-indulgent experiment,  this is a film of huge ambition, intense political commitment and a love of humanity, and of storytelling, that even through hard times remains indomitably exuberant.  

Production companies: O Som e a Fúria, Shellac Sud, Komplizen Film, Box Productions

International sales: Match Factory, info@matchfactory.de

Producers: Luís Urbano, Sandro Aguilar, Thomas Ordonneau, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Elena Tatti, Thierry Spicher, Elodie Brunner

Screenplay: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro

Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Lisa Persson, Mário Castanheira

Editors: Telmo Churro, Pedro Felipe Marques, Miguel Gomes

Production design: Bruno Duarte, Artur Pinheiro

Main cast: Crista Alfaiate, Luísa Cruz, Américo Silva, Adriano Luz