Monday, November 2, 2015
Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 11: "Arabian Nights" (1974)
Capping off the "Trilogy of Life" is Pasolini's penultimate film, Arabian Nights (1974). Next to The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), this might be one of the most positive films by Pasolini. Where Arabian Nights is about childlike innocence and love, Pasolini's final film (Salò) is the exact opposite on a moral and world-view level. Featuring a cast of hundreds that is primarily comprised of untrained locals, the speckling of Pasolini's regular actors such as Franco Citti and Ninetto Davoli lends the Arab world that Pasolini is depicting a truly exotic atmosphere. It's neither here nor there, and yet it's set against the backdrop of ancient Baghdad.
Following in the same vein as The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972), Arabian Nights is a collection of vignettes, but this time they are expressed more naturally: as stories spoken or read by characters in the film. The central characters of Arabian Nights are the incompetent (yet well-meaning) teenage boy Nur Ed Din (Franco Merli) and his beautiful slave girl Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini). Opening with the gorgeous Zumurrud being auctioned off to whomever she wishes, she selects Nur Ed Din to become her new master. Though Nur Ed Din has no money, Zumurrud gives him some money so that he can properly purchase her in front of the crowd of elderly men. This moment of fate leads to Nur Ed Din's sexual awakening as he and Zumurrud instantly fall in love. Zumurrud is a masterful seamstress (as great as she is at giving "head massages"), so to earn some extra money for Nur Ed Din, she makes an elegant blanket for Nur Ed Din to sell at the marketplace. Her only request to Nur Ed Din is that he cannot sell it to a man with blue eyes (as she has a terrible feeling that something will come between them if he does). Naturally, when Nur Ed Din goes to the marketplace, the best offer he receives is from a man with blue eyes, and Nur Ed Din reluctantly accepts his money. On his way home, the man with the blue eyes follows him the whole way, drugs Nur Ed Din's food, and then kidnaps Zumurrud. For the rest of the film, Nur Ed Din is on a journey to find the love of his life.
During his journey, Nur Ed Din meets many beautiful women, and from those women he receives sexual favors and stories. One of the most emotionally impacting stories recounted follows Ninetto Davoli as a man on his wedding day who takes his wife-to-be for granted and misses the ceremony when he falls in love with a woman that he sees for the very first time. When Davoli returns home to his wife-to-be, he discovers that the wedding has been delayed by his parents for a year, so he tells his fiancé about the woman he fell in love with. Even though it pains her, his fiancé chooses to help him win her affection. By the end of this devastating tale, Davoli realizes that his heart was always with his fiancé, but he doesn't realize this until it's too late.
The vignette following Davoli's character isn't just remarkable for its emotional catharsis, but because it's a story within a story. In fact, during that particular vignette, several other stories are told (some going as deep as a story within a story within another story). Like the dream sequence in Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie (1972), Pasolini is playing with narrative form. Following the opening credits of Arabian Nights is a quote from the original source material which reads: "Truth lies not in one dream, but in many." Those words become the key to interpreting the narrative purpose of the stories told throughout Pasolini's Arabian Nights, and the film benefits from the additional stories that buffer the core plot – in Arabian Nights, they aren't just stories, they're parables..
Like the Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan film The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Arabian Nights is a spectacle through the eyes of young people. Though Arabian Nights is not a children's film (by any stretch of the imagination), it still manages to evoke many of the same feelings of childhood wonder that The Thief of Baghdad does so effectively. Arabian Nights is a tribute to love at first sight, the power of love, and the strength of young love.
My rating: 4.5/5