Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One

Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One ★★★★

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.

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